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Crisis Escalates Over Iran's Seizure Of British Sailors

March 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The standoff continues between Britain and Iran over Tehran's detention of 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf.

The EU has demanded that Iran immediately and unconditionally release the sailors and marines, who were detained more than a week ago, and warned of undefined "appropriate measures."

Full EU Support

Meanwhile, Iran's ambassador to Russia has denied reports quoting him as saying that the British personnel might be put on trial.

Gholam Reza Ansari, speaking today to official news agency IRNA, said that his reported remarks to Russia's Vesti-24 television were mistranslated. The channel had quoted him as saying on March 30 that "the legal phase concerning these British soldiers has started and if charges against them are proven, they will be punished."

A statement by EU foreign ministers, approved on March 30 in the German city of Bremen, gave full support behind Britain. London denies Iran's claims that the U.K. crew was in its waters when seized on 23 March.

The EU statement says that "all evidence clearly indicates that at the time of the seizure, the British naval personnel were on a routine patrolling mission in Iraqi waters" -- in accordance with a United Nations mandate. The statement adds that the seizure "therefore constitutes a clear breach of international law."

"Great Britain can count on the tight and unconditional support of all Europeans," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. "We expressed this also toward our British colleague. And we advised to seek consultations with Tehran, which I discussed with [EU foreign-policy chief] Javier Solana, in order to find a fast solution."

Strong EU Stance

Solana emphasized in Bremen that Iran must release "the citizens of the European Union."

"We are talking about the European Union and the United Kingdom belongs to the European Union and the citizens belong to the European union," Solana said. "Therefore, the people in Iran do have to understand that if something happens to citizens of the European Union, the European Union reacts in a solidarity manner with the countries and the member states and with the people of that country."

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said today that London has officially responded by diplomatic note to Iran over the sailors' capture and that the two sides have begun discusisons. She gave not other details.

U.S. officials have also expressed solidarity with Britain.

However, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack has ruled out a deal to exchange the 15 British sailors for five Iranians seized by U.S. forces in Iraq. The Iranians, believed to be members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, were seized in January in the Iraqi city of Irbil.

On March 30, Russia's Foreign Ministry said the UN should conduct an independent investigation into the circumstances of the capture of the sailors.

The ministry made the call in a statement released after talks between British Ambassador Anthony Brenton and Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Yakovenko in Moscow.

Raining On 'Parade'

Prime Minister Tony Blair condemned Iran for "parading" the British crew on television in a way that would only "enhance people's sense of disgust."

"I really don't know why the Iranian regime keeps doing this," Blair said. "I mean, all it does is enhance people's sense of disgust. Captured personnel being paraded and manipulated in this way doesn't fool anyone."

On March 30, Iran aired television footage of another British sailor -- Nathan Thomas Summers -- "confessing" to trespassing in its waters. An "apology" by Leading Seaman Faye Turney was aired earlier in the week.

(compiled from wire reports)

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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