Eight British sailors held by Iran for crossing into its territorial waters are to face prosecution, Iranian state-run television reported today.
Showing what it said was footage of the detained men after questioning, al-Alam television said they had confessed to being a kilometre inside its borders.
The sailors sat around on chairs in an unidentified location. British officials have demanded to know where and why they are being held and to be given access to them.
The team was arrested on the Shatt al-Arab waterway as it delivered three small vessels from the southern port of Um Qasr to Basra. Formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Shatt al-Arab waterway connects Basra to the Gulf and has long been a source of contention between the two countries on its banks.
In 1988, the end of the Iran-Iraq war – fought in part over the waterway – saw the river spilt down the middle. The Iraqi portion is now under the control of the British occupying forces.
The Foreign Office said it wanted Iran to explain what the reports meant. “They have got to come up with some answers to our questions and we are pressing them for answers,” the spokesman said.
Jack Straw has spoken to his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharazzi, and obtained a pledge that he would look into the matter personally, but British officials have attempted to play down the diplomatic significance of the arrests.
Britain enjoys better relations with Iran than the US, but the detention of the sailors comes against a backdrop of recent strains.
While Britain has pursued a policy of “constructive engagement” and has been at the forefront of EU efforts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programme, it joined other EU countries last week in criticising Tehran for not cooperating with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority.
There has been concern that the seizure of the boats and the IAEA resolution are linked, but a British official told the Guardian it was unlikely the incident carried a political message. “They don’t usually play games. The nuclear issue is high-level politics, this seems to be low-level military tactics.”
The MoD said the arrested crews had been delivering patrol boats to the Iraqi river police. The Shatt al-Arab waterway is a major smuggling point for oil out of the country and a crossing point for groups opposed to the US-led occupation in Iraq seeking to infiltrate the country.