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Friday, March 30, 2007

Iran escalates crisis with Britain, saying it will not release female sailor

LONDON: Iran leveled new accusations against Britain in the crisis over 15 captured British sailors on Thursday and withdrew a promise to free a woman sailor, insisting that Britain admit fault before its naval personnel are released.

Now in its seventh day, the crisis seemed to have reached a point where both sides have left the other little room for a face-saving compromise. A senior Iranian official, moreover, has hinted that the captured sailors might be put on trial for unspecified offenses. It is not clear what further counter-measures Britain might take. Iran has not said where the captured sailors are being held so the prospects of a rescue attempt - similar to the failed American bid to free the embassy hostages in April, 1980 - seemed uncertain.

The increasingly intractable dispute turns on rival claims as to the whereabouts of the British sailors when they were seized. Iran says they were more than 500 yards inside its territorial waters, but Britain produced satellite navigation coordinates Wednesday to support its contention that the sailors were 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters on patrols approved by the United Nations and the Iraqi government.

IRNA, the official Iranian news agency, quoted an Iranian naval official as taking Teheran's accusations significantly further, saying the Britons, in two inflatable, high-speed patrol boats from the frigate HMS Cornwall, had entered Iranian waters several times before they were seized. The Iranian official was quoted as saying Iran had film of the alleged intrusions. The Royal Navy says the sailors were "ambushed" as they completed an inspection of an Indian-flagged merchant ship in Iraqi waters.

IRNA also quoted from a letter sent by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the British Embassy in Teheran demanding British guarantees not to intrude into Iranian waters in the future.
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"The Islamic Republic of Iran severely protests against the violation of its territorial waters in the Persian Gulf and, while underlining the importance of international laws and respect for the sovereignty of nations, cautions the London government of the consequences of such violations," the letter was quoted as saying.

For its part, Britain said on Thursday that it would seek United Nations backing against Iran in the dispute, even as Iran hardened its stance over the planned release of Faye Turney, a 26-year-old mother of one, who is the only woman among the 15 sailors and Royal Marines captured in disputed waters on March 23.

Initially, Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, had indicated she might still be freed if Britain retreated from its intention to seek United Nations backing. He said that "if we are faced with a fuss and wrong behavior," Seaman Turney's release "would be suspended and it would not take place."

Later, though, the Mehr news agency quoted a military commander, Alireza Afshar, as saying: "The release of a female British soldier has been suspended. The wrong behavior of those who live in London caused the suspension."

The crisis again sent oil prices above $64 per barrel, close to six month highs.

Britain has already secured European Union support for its insistence that Iran acted illegally in seizing the 15 sailors on March 23 in the waters of the northern Persian Gulf. The latest exchanges between Tehran and London seemed to show the two countries in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with neither side ready to blink.

A British official spokesman, speaking in return for customary anonymity, insisted that Britain would continue with efforts to coax the United Nations Security Council to support its demand for the release of the 15 captured sailors.

Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, attending a meeting in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, insisted that Britain must admit fault in the dispute to end the standoff, the Associated Press reported.

The dispute has added to the tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran's disputed nuclear program and other issues such as Iran's demand for the release of five Iranians held by American forces in Iraq.

On Wednesday, Britain said that it would freeze its official bilateral business with Iran. Iran responded by showing Seaman Turney on state-run television.

The crisis has left Prime Minister Tony Blair in a delicate position. Britain is in Iraq as a junior ally of the United States - a position that has cost him much of the political kudos he had accumulated when he took office almost 10 years ago.

He has promised to step down this summer so his final months could well be marred by the unpalatable vision of British sailors held by Iranian captors over whom he has no evident influence. The crisis this week has overshadowed completely what should have been a ringing success in Northern Ireland, where arch-rivals Gerry Adams and the Reverand Ian Paisley agreed to form a power-sharing government on May 8.

That would bolster Blair's ambitions to mold a legacy of achievement in a way that a protracted hostage crisis would not. British newspapers filled their front pages on Friday with photographs of Seaman Turney wearing a black Islamic head-scarf served to underline the awkward position Blair is in.

"The brutal truth is that Britain is not in a strong position," The Independent said in an editorial. "Whatever the complexities of maritime boundaries, whatever the position in international law, the reality is that Iran holds British sailors and, with them, most of the cards. Iran also has oil, and a contempt for international opinion that means any threat of further isolation will have only limited effect."
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