BERLIN – British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Sunday that the 15 British sailors and marines captured by Iran were not in Iranian waters and warned that Britain viewed their fate as a “fundamental” issue.
The group was seized at gunpoint on Friday, and the Foreign Office in London said British officials do not know where Iran is holding them.
“It is simply not true that they went into Iranian territorial waters,” Blair said at a news conference in Berlin, calling the situation “very serious.”
“I want to get it resolved in as easy and diplomatic a way as possible,” he said, but added he hoped the Iranians “understood how fundamental an issue this is for the British government.”
Blair’s comment, at celebrations for the 50th birthday of the
European Union, follows British and European Union demands for Iran to release the 15, who were seized at gunpoint in disputed waters between Iran and
Iraq on Friday.
Britain and the United States have said the sailors had just completed a search of a civilian vessel in the Iraqi part of the Shatt al Arab waterway when they were intercepted by the Iranian navy.
Iran, however, says they illegally entered Iranian waters. Iranian state television reported that its Foreign Ministry called in British Ambassador Geoffrey Adams, “to protest the illegal entry.” Britain disputed the Iranian account, saying the meeting was called at the ambassador’s request.
The capture and detention of the British service personnel risks escalating an already fraught relationship between Iran and the West.
U.N. Security Council of Saturday agreed to moderately tougher sanctions against Iran for its refusal to meet U.N. demands that it halt uranium enrichment. Many in the West fear Tehran’s nuclear program is not for power generation but for arms making, a claim Iran denies.
The approved sanctions included ban on Iranian arms exports and freezing the assets of 28 additional people and organizations involved in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. About a third of those are linked to the Revolutionary Guard, an elite corps whose navy seized the British sailors and marines.
The British Foreign Office said requests for access to the 15 Britons had been denied and officials did not know where they were being held.
Iran’s Gen. Ali Reza Afshar said Saturday that the seized Britons were taken to Tehran for questioning where they “confessed” to illegally entering Iranian waters.
Lord Triesman, a Foreign Office undersecretary who had held talks with Iran’s ambassador on Saturday, told Sky News the issue of whether the sailors had strayed into Iranian waters was a technical one.
“I’ve been very clear throughout that the British forces do not ever intentionally enter into Iranian waters,” he said. “There’s no reason for them to do so, we don’t intend to do so and I think people should accept there’s good faith in those assertions.”
“We believe there’s good strong evidence that they were in Iraqi water at the time,” Triesman said. “That’s a technical issue and I think it could be resolved as a technical issue.”
President Jacques Chirac expressed support for Britain’s position: “It appears clear that these soldiers were not in the Iranian zone at the time.”
Peter Hain, Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary, described Tehran’s refusal to return the sailors as a dangerous development.
“It’s essential that this occurs and it’s essential not just for the well-being of our soldiers but also for stability in the region,” he said.