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Iran Frees US Sailors After Brief Detention

by Carla Babb January 13, 2016

The United States welcomed Iran's release of 10 U.S. Navy sailors Wednesday, a day after they drifted into Iranian waters and were detained.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said resolution of the incident was a success for diplomacy, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter said he was grateful to have the service members "back in our hands."

American authorities are still unsure of the circumstances surrounding the crews' detention, Carter said, in part because they have not yet been able 'to fully debrief the sailors.'

The freed Navy crew members - nine men and one woman - are now at a U.S facility in Qatar. Iran also released the two small patrol boats the Americans were using when they were detained.

The sailors were traveling through the Persian Gulf from Kuwait toward Bahrain when U.S. controllers lost contact with them on Tuesday. Iranian Revolutionary Guards who patrol the Gulf boarded the U.S. vessels and detained the crew members near Farsi Island, Iranian territory roughly midway between Kuwait and Bahrain.

Kerry praised Iran for 'swiftly resolving' the situation.

'That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong,' Kerry said.

The State Department said there was no formal U.S. apology to Iran, since the sailors' intrusion into Iranian waters was accidental - the result of a mechanical problem aboard the American craft, according to Iran.

Iranian television broadcast what appeared to be a brief interview with one of the American sailors, who said the crew apologized for entering Iranian waters by mistake.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif tweeted that he was happy to see 'dialogue and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the sailors episode. Let's learn from this latest example.'

Iranian state television quoted General Ali Fadavi, the naval chief of the Revolutionary Guards, saying a mechanical problem with the sailors' navigation equipment steered them into Iranian waters. Officials at the Pentagon said they could not immediately confirm that account.

Ramadhan Sharif, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards, told Iran's Aftab News that the U.S. servicemen were questioned while in detention.

The situation in the Gulf was unfolding as President Barack Obama went to Capitol Hill Tuesday evening for his annual State of the Union message, televised live through the country and aborad. The president did not mention the Gulf incident, but did take note of the nuclear agreement reached last year between Tehran and the Western powers, saying, 'The world has avoided another war.'

The nuclear agreement is expected to be implemented in the coming days, following steps Iran has taken to curb its nuclear activities. Western governments have agreed in return to lift long-standing economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Farsi Island is home to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps naval base, which may be why the sailors were quickly detained, according to Matthew Kroenig, a senior fellow in The Atlantic Council's Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

"Most countries would do the same thing if foreign sailors came that close to a naval base," Kroenig told VOA.

Less than a month ago U.S. officials criticized Iran for carrying out a 'highly provocative' rocket test near U.S. boats passing through the Strait of Hormuz in the region.

Chris Hannas in Washington, Nike Ching and Pam Dockins at the State Department and other VOA journalists contributed to this report.



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