23/06/2004

Iran set to release captive British sailors today

The eight British sailors being held by Iranian authorities are expected to be released later today.

According to Reuters reports, Iran's foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi told the state-run IRNA news agency that the men would be released today.

The eight Royal Navy personnel – six Marines and two sailors – were arrested on Monday after apparently straying into Iranian waters along the Shatt Al Arab waterway.

The men, who belong to the Royal Navy Training Team (RNTT), based in southern Iraq, were in the process of delivering a boat from Umm Qasr to Basrah when they were arrested.

The group were travelling in two Boston Whalers – a type of small motorboat – and one British Army combat support boat. The MoD confirmed the boats were unarmed but that the crews were carrying their personal weapons.

Iranian authorities paraded the men before television cameras yesterday. Whilst they appeared to be unharmed, concerns were raised over their treatment when images of the group in blindfolds were broadcast. Footage of one sailor apologising for their supposed transgressions was also aired.

The Shatt Al Arab waterway which divides Iraq and Iran territory has long been a cause for tension; precisely what portion of the waterway lies within Iranian control – the river's mid-point or as far as the bank on the Iraqi side – remains unclear. The shifting delineation of the Shatt Al Arab deep-channel frontier was one of myriad issues underpinning the start of Iran-Iraq war in 1980.

The Iranian broadcaster, Al Alam, reported that the Royal Navy personnel had strayed around 1,000 metres across the "marine border" when they were detained by a Revolutionary Guards patrol.

(gmcg)

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