By NASSER KARIMI, Associated Press Writer 5 minutes ago
TEHRAN, Iran – President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the release of 15 captive British soldiers and sailors Wednesday in what he called an Easter gift to the British people.
Tony Blair, who said the Britons had been released, added that he bore “no ill will” toward the Iranian people.
As of 9 p.m. local time in Tehran, however, the Britons had not arrived at the British Embassy.
Alex Pinfield, first secretary of embassy in Tehran, said it’s not clear when they will be handed over or where they are going to spend the night. He indicated the British “are still discussing the Iranian case with the Iranian foreign ministry.”
Iranian state television showed the 14 men and one woman meeting with Ahmadinejad outside the presidential palace. They were seized while on patrol in the northern Persian gulf on March 23, would leave
Iran on Thursday.
Ahmadinejad’s surprise announcement came at a news conference shortly after he pinned a medal on the chest of the Iranian coast guard commander who intercepted the sailors and marines.
“On the occasion of the birthday of the great prophet (Muhammad) … and for the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people — with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial — forgave those 15,” he said, referring to the Muslim prophet’s birthday on March 30 and the Easter holiday.
“This pardon is a gift to the British people,” he said.
The release ends a 13-day standoff between London and Tehran that was sparked when the crew was seized as it searched for smugglers off the Iraqi coast. Britain denied Iranian claims the crew had entered Iranian waters.
“I’m glad that our 15 service personnel have been released and I know their release will come as a relief not just to them but to their families,” Blair said outside his No. 10 Downing St. office. “Throughout, we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting, either.”
Blair added, “To the Iranian people, I would simply say this: We bear you no ill will.”
President Bush, who had condemned the seizure of the Britons and referred to them as “hostages,” also welcomed it, said his national security spokesman, Gordon Johndroe.
Blair thanked British allies in Europe, the
U.N. Security Council and in the Middle East for their help in securing the freedom of the Royal Navy personnel. Syria‘s information and foreign ministers said Damascus had played a key role in resolving the standoff.“Syria exercised a sort of quiet diplomacy to solve this problem and encourage dialogue between the two parties,” Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said.
After Ahmadinejad’s news conference, state television showed him meeting with the British crew, who were dressed in business suits, outside the presidential palace. He shook hands and chatted with them through a translator, and a caption to the video said the meeting was taking place as part of the “process of release.”
“We appreciate it. Your people have been really kind to us, and we appreciate it very much,” one of the crew could be heard telling Ahmadinejad in English.
Another said: “We are grateful for your forgiveness.”
Ahmadinejad responded in Farsi, “You are welcome.”
Among the crew at the palace was sailor Faye Turney, the sole woman among the captives, wearing a blue jacket and floral-patterned blue and white headscarf.
Iranian TV said the British captives had watched Ahmadinejad’s news conference live and were ecstatic when a translator told them what the president had said.
British Defense Secretary Des Browne said the sailors and marines had acted with dignity during their captivity.
“It is vital that we get them back home quickly and safely so they can be reunited with their families and loved ones — that is our priority now,” he said.
Recent days saw talk of direct negotiations between Britain and Iran, and a decrease in tensions that had risen after Iran broadcast videos in which Turney and the others “confessed” to violating Iranian territorial waters, and Britain expressed outrage.
Ahmadinejad said the British government had sent a letter to the Iranian Foreign Ministry pledging that entering Iranian waters “will not happen again.”
The British Foreign Office responded: “We haven’t gone into detail of what was in the note. But we have said all along we made our position clear (about being in Iraqi waters).”
The crew would be handed over to British diplomats in Tehran and that it would then be up to the Foreign Office to decide how they would return home, said an Iranian official in London who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.
They will leave Tehran early Thursday and arrive at Heathrow around 11 a.m. (8 a.m. EDT), said Robin Air, father of Royal Marine Capt. Chris Air. Families will be reunited with the crew later in the day at a military base, he said.
Ahmadinejad’s announcement came after Iran’s state media reported that an Iranian envoy would be allowed to meet five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq. Another Iranian diplomat, separately seized two months ago by uniformed gunmen in Iraq, was released and returned Tuesday to Tehran.
Ahmadinejad said Iran will never accept trespassing in its territorial waters.
“On behalf of the great Iranian people, I want to thank the Iranian coast guard who courageously defended and captured those who violated their territorial waters,” he said in awarding a medal to the coast guard commander.
“We are sorry that British troops remain in Iraq and their sailors are being arrested in Iran,” Ahmadinejad said.
Ahmadinejad asked Blair not to “punish” the crew for confessing that they had been in Iranian waters when they were seized by Iranian coast guard. Iran broadcast video of some of the crew giving confessions, angering Britain.
He also criticized Britain for deploying Turney in the Gulf, pointing out that she is a woman with a child.
“How can you justify seeing a mother away from her home, her children? Why don’t they respect family values in the West?” he asked of the British government.
Iran has denied it seized the Britons to force the release of Iranians held in Iraq, and Britain has steadfastly insisted it would not negotiate for the sailors’ freedom.
Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency said earlier Wednesday that an Iranian envoy would be allowed to meet with the five detained Iranians in Iraq but gave no further details.
A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said, however, that American authorities were still considering the request. The spokesman, Maj. Gen. William C. Caldwell, said an international Red Cross team, including one Iranian, had visited the prisoners but he did not say when.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Associated Press that the case of the five Iranians detained in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish self-governing region in northern Iraq, had no connection with the British captives.
Zebari, a Kurd, said his government had been relaying Iranian requests for a meeting with the five detainees, but could not confirm the request had been approved.
In a commentary, IRNA said the movement on the Iranian prisoner issue was due in part to “the new American political and military appointments in Iraq.”
The agency was referring to Gen. David Petraeus, who took command of U.S. forces in February, and Ryan Crocker, who began work as the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq in March.
U.S. troops detained the five Iranians on Jan. 11, accusing them of links to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard network that was supplying money and weapons to insurgents in Iraq.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Bush had approved the strategy of raiding Iranian targets in Iraq as part of efforts to confront Tehran.
Iraqi Kurds, like the country’s Shiites, maintain close ties with Shiite-dominated Iran, despite their warm relationship with the U.S. — and have been upset over the arrests.
Iran denounced the raid and insisted that the five were diplomats who were engaged exclusively in consular work. The Iraqi government said they were arrested at an office that was supposed to become an Iranian consulate.
The British newspaper The Independent reported this week that the Irbil raid had escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran and may have set the stage for the seizure of the British crew.
Associated Press writers Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report.