Blair: Iran must free naval prisoners in days

London Telegraph | March 26, 2007
Christopher Hope

Tony Blair warned Iran last night that it has only a few days to find a diplomatic solution to the escalating crisis over the 15 missing British sailors and Marines.
As the tension grew, the first direct high-level talks took place between Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, and Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, to press Britain’s concerns.

The moves came as the Foreign Office admitted it had no idea what has happened to the 15 Navy personnel seized by the Iranian military on Friday. The Prime Minister, in his first public comments since the incident, appeared to signal a hardening of attitudes after more than 48 hours of low-level diplomacy.

Speaking in Berlin, Mr Blair said he still hoped that there could be a diplomatic solution.

“I hope that this is resolved in the next few days,” he said. “The quicker it is resolved, the easier it will be for all of us.

“We have certainly sent the message back to them very clearly indeed. They should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong.”

The seizure of the 14 men and one woman by Iran was a “very serious situation”, Mr Blair added.

He warned Teheran that it was a “fundamental” issue for Britain and insisted that the personnel had not strayed into Iranian waters.

He said: “I have not been commenting up to now because I want to get it resolved in as easy and diplomatic a way as possible, because it is the welfare of the people that have been taken by the Iranian government that is most important. But this is a very serious situation.”

The sailors and Marines were seized from the Shatt al-Arab waterway south of the Iraqi city of Basra. Teheran claimed the patrol encroached on its territorial waters in an act of “blatant aggression”.

But this was disputed strongly by Mr Blair. He said: “There is no doubt at all that these people were taken from a boat in Iraqi waters.

“It is simply not true that they went into Iranian territorial waters and I hope the Iranian government understands how fundamental an issue this is for us.”

Downing Street sources denied that Mr Blair’s comments should be read as an ultimatum to the Iranians or that any sort of military option was under consideration.

But the intervention does mark a shift in the language being used.

Mrs Beckett continued the pressure, “making very clear” in a phone call to Mr Mottaki that no violation of Iranian waters had occurred. And she repeated still unanswered demands for information on the whereabouts of the 15 and for consular access to them.

Britain’s position received support from other European Union countries yesterday. President Jacques Chirac of France said Britain had the “complete solidarity” of all EU leaders over the sailors.

“It seems clear they were not in the Iranian zone at the time,” he said.

The German presidency of the EU issued a statement calling for their immediate release.

Diplomats are hoping that there may be more movement today from Teheran as Iranians return to work after a public holiday.

Yesterday the British ambassador, Geoffrey Adams, met his counterpart in the Iraqi foreign ministry seeking access to the prisoners.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are waiting to get a response to that. At the Ambassador’s request he went to a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign affairs in Teheran to press again for the release of our personnel, ask where they are being held and ask for consular access.”

Last night it was reported that Iran may give consular access once an investigation is completed.

Lord Triesman, a Foreign Office minister, said: “We don’t know where they are. We wish we did. We are asking whether they are being moved around inside Iran.”

The Foreign Office refused to comment on reports that the Iranian military had extracted confessions from the team from the frigate Cornwall, saying this was “speculation”.

The team was seized on the eve of Saturday’s UN security council vote to impose further sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme

Relations between Britain and Iran have deteriorated recently, partly because of the row over Iran’s nuclear programme and partly because of Iraq.

But Foreign Offices sources said Iran was viewing the prisoners and its dispute with the UN as separate issues.

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Clare Swinney

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