Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Reports Say I.R. Iran Has Freed 5 British Sailors

Tweet It!

The New York Times

The British authorities said Wednesday they were “actively investigating” Iranian news reports that Tehran has released five sailors detained after their 60-foot racing yacht apparently drifted into Iranian territorial waters in the Persian Gulf. If confirmed, the reports on Iranian state radio would suggest that the government has backed away from a confrontation after earlier warnings that it would put the sailors on trial and take “serious” measures if they were found to have harbored malicious intentions towards Iran. The incident coincided with mounting tension between Iran and the West over its nuclear program although British officials sought publicly to avoid any linkage between the two. “After getting necessary guarantees, Iran released the five,” the state radio quoted a statement issued by the Revolutionary Guards, according to Reuters. “We reached the conclusion that they entered Iran’s territorial waters by mistake.” A spokeswoman in the British Foreign Office, speaking in return for anonymity under departmental rules, said, “We are actively investigating this.” But she declined further comment. If the men are released, the incident will offer a sharp contrast with events in March 2007 when the Revolutionary Guards arrested 15 members of the British Navy and marines, accusing them of entering Iranian territorial waters. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered their release two weeks later, characterizing the gesture as a gift to the British. But the episode caused profound embarrassment among government and naval leaders in Britain. British officials have sought to avoid comparisons between the incidents and to insist that the detention of the sailors should not be drawn into the nuclear debate.

“This is a human story of five young yachtsmen,” the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, said Tuesday. “It’s got nothing to do with politics. It’s got nothing to do with the nuclear enrichment program. “It’s a consular case, which is being treated as a consular case by the U.K., and I’m sure will be treated as a consular case by the Iranian authorities,” he said. “It has no relation to any other issue. On that basis, I hope it will be resolved in a speedy and professional manner.” Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, an aide to President Ahmadinejad, had told the semi-official Fars news agency that judicial proceedings would determine the fate of the five sailors. “Naturally, our measures will be hard and serious if we find out they had evil intentions,” he said, according to news reports. Britain belongs to a group of six nations, including the United States, that sponsored a demand by the United Nations nuclear watchdog last week for Iran to immediately freeze operations at a once-secret enrichment plant, prompting a furious response from Tehran, which said it would build 10 more plants. Concerns about the five sailors deepened because Iran often prosecutes foreigners accused of straying into its territory. In mid-November, Iran said it was pursuing spying charges against three American travelers who accidentally crossed into the country over the summer as they hiked through the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. Despite pleas from the hikers’ parents and calls for their release from the White House, the hikers are still being held in Iran. The five sailors were identified in British news reports as Oliver Smith, Sam Usher, Luke Porter, Oliver Young and David Bloomer.