Reuters: Britain increased pressure on Iran on Wednesday releasing evidence it said showed 15 military personnel captured last week were operating in Iraqi waters.
By Peter Graff
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain increased pressure on Iran on Wednesday releasing evidence it said showed 15 military personnel captured last week were operating in Iraqi waters.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said the detention of the British sailors by Iran was “completely unacceptable, wrong and illegal” and said it was time to ratchet up diplomatic pressure on Tehran to free them.
As the United States conducted naval exercises in the Gulf, the Iran crisis rattled global markets.
The Ministry of Defence said global positioning data showed the British sailors and marines were 1.7 nautical miles within Iraqi waters when they were captured by Iranian gunboats near the waterway that separates Iran and Iraq.
“The boats remained throughout well within Iraqi territorial waters,” Britain’s Deputy Chief of Defence Staff, Vice Admiral Charles Style, told a news conference.
A senior British military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, later described the Iranian action as “unprovoked, unanticipated, unexpected and improper.”
The crisis coincides with a U.N. Security Council resolution passed at the weekend tightening sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme. Iran denies building atomic weapons and calls the sanctions illegal.
Foreign Office officials said the Iranian ambassador had been in talks there on Tuesday and was summoned for a fifth meeting later on Wednesday.
They were unable to confirm comments by Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan that Turkish diplomats may be allowed to see the captured Britons. Britain has so far been denied access.
The showdown caused jitters throughout global markets.
Speculation denied by both Washington and London that military operations were under way in the Gulf sent oil prices briefly up by $5 overnight to more than $68 a barrel before they settled back at around $64.
The Gulf’s northern reaches give access to the oil output of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait.
The rumours also rattled financial markets edgy after several weeks of volatility. Shares fell and the yen strengthened as investors ditched risky positions based on borrowing in the Japanese currency. Gold jumped to a four-week high on safe-haven buying before prices eased.
For the first time since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, a second U.S. aircraft carrier, the John C. Stennis, arrived in the Gulf for previously-scheduled naval war games.
Iran played down the U.S. naval exercises. A headline across screens on Iranian state television read: “Iran: ‘no concern about Pentagon’s war games in the Persian Gulf’.”
Commander Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, said about 15 U.S. ships were involved in the exercises that would probably last a few days.
“If Iran takes away a message from this, then that’s up to them,” he said.
Blair said on Tuesday London would move to “a new phase” if Iran did not provide access to the sailors and release them.
“The important thing is that Iran recognises that these personnel were in Iraqi waters … given the nature of the evidence, it’s difficult to dispute it,” Blair’s spokesman told reporters on Wednesday.
Britain says its 15 personnel had just completed a routine search of a merchant ship in Iraqi waters, with a U.N. mandate, when they were captured.
Iran says it has evidence the British navy personnel had crossed into its waters, but has so far not made it public. A senior Iranian military official said at the weekend the sailors had confessed to entering Iranian waters illegally.
CNN Turk television quoted Erdogan, at a meeting of the Arab League in Saudi Arabia, as saying Turkish diplomats might get to see them.
“Our position remains that we want immediate consular access for British diplomats and the release of our personnel and equipment,” a Foreign Office official said.
In a similar incident in 2004, Iran freed eight British service members after holding them for three days. But since then, Iran’s leadership has become more hostile to the West and tension over Iran’s nuclear programme has increased.
(Additional reporting by Sophie Walker and Katherine Baldwin in London, Mohammed Abbas in Bahrain and Fredrik Dahl in Tehran)