Iran says sailor will not be freed if Britain creates a ‘fuss’

Who remembers the actress in ‘Wag The Dog’ (1997) who wore a head scarf like the alleged hostage, Leading Seaman Faye Turney?

From Times Online
March 29, 2007

Britain was gathering suppport tonight for a UN Security Council statement condemning Iran’s seizure of 15 Royal Navy personnel in the Gulf, even after Tehran warned that it would hold on to a female sailor if the UK created a “fuss”.

Iran stepped up its rhetoric in the war of words as Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, joined the diplomatic drive to win the release of the eight sailors and seven Royal Marines taken prisoner in the Shatt al-Arab waterway last Friday.

The UK yesterday froze all bilateral ties with Iran except for contacts directly related to the hostage crisis and has appealed for support to its allies and international partners. But it insists that the group were conducting routine shipping in Iraqi territorial waters when they were seized and had not, as Tehran says, strayed out of them.

Last night, an Iranian television channel ran video footage of the 15 prisoners, including Leading Seaman Faye Turney, a 26-year-old mother who was shown admitting that her boat had “obviously” trespassed into Iranian waters. The airing of the footage enraged British ministers.

Her blonde hair covered in a black headscarf, Leading Seaman Turney said that she and her colleagues were being treated well by their “friendly, hospitable, thoughtful and nice” captors.

Today, the British Ambassador in Tehran lodged a formal complaint about the video and demanded the hostages’ immediate release. At UN headquarters in New York, Britain circulated the draft text of a Security Council declaration on the issue which is to be debated later today.

After Iran’s promise yesterday that the female sailor would soon be released, a senior Iranian official said today that she would remain in captivity if Britain went ahead with its threat to freeze relations and pursue the matter through the UN.

“We said that the grounds were ready for the release of a woman among the British sailors, but if we are faced with a fuss and wrong behaviour then this would be suspended and it would not take place,” Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and his country’s top negotiator, told state television.

The hostage stand-off has overshadowed a meeting of the Arab League in Riyadh, on the sidelines of which Mr Ban, the UN chief, met Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister this morning. A UN spokeswoman said he planned to raise the question of the captive Britons, among other issues.

The crisis was also discussed in a meeting last night between Mr Mottaki and Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, who told The Times in Riyahd today that he had “a real sense” that Iran wanted to resolve the crisis.

Mr Zebari said he had given his counterpart a message that the sailors should be freed. “Our information is that they were arrested and detained in Iraqi territorial waters,” he said.

“On the basis of our good neighbourly relations, we regard it as a pure accident and we urge the Iranians to relase them. He promised me that they had been investigating the case and promised me that the lady will be released today or tomorrow.

“I felt a real sense that they want to resolve this issue. We told them any escalation in the current circumstances will not be useful… He got the message very clearly.”

The crisis comes against the background of a wider diplomatic battle between Iran and the West over its nuclear programme and its resumption last year of uranium enrichment, which has prompted sanctions from the UN Security Council.

The Iranians have also been accused of fomenting insurgent activity in southern Iraq, where it is said to fund and organise Shia Muslim militias blamed for attacks on British forces.

After five days of discreet diplomacy failed to produce a breakthrough, the Ministry of Defence went public with its satellite evidence which showed that the two inflatable patrol boats in which the captured sailors had been operating were 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters when they were “ambushed” by Iranian warships.

Both Tony Blair and Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, joined in – Mr Blair describing the seizure as “illegal” and Mrs Beckett announcing a freeze in ties. The MoD also accused Iran of having changed its story after initially giving map coordinates that proved the seizure was in Iraqi waters.

Ramping up the tension, the Iranian consul in Bassra charged that British soldiers had surrounded his office in the southern Iraqi city this morning and fired shorts into the air in a “provocative act” that “could worsen the situation of the British sailors”.

“British forces should rely on wisdom and not react because of the British forces’ detention. This reflects negatively on bilateral relations,” said Consul-General Mohammed Ridha Nasir Baghban.

Britain denied the allegation. The Ministry of Defence said that the was an exchange of gunfire after UK troops on a foot patrol near the consulate building were ambushed.

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Clare Swinney

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