LONDON, England (AP) — Eight British servicemen seized by Iranian troops last week on the Iran-Iraq border say they were “forcibly escorted into Iranian territorial waters” before they were detained, Britain’s Defense Ministry says.
Tehran claimed the six Royal Marines and two Royal Navy sailors had strayed into the Iranian side of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. It held the men for four days, prompting a diplomatic standoff.
Defense Minister Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons the men reported they had not made a navigational mistake and had been detained in Iraqi waters.
“In a recent debriefing, the crews have said that they were operating inside the Iraqi border and were forcibly escorted into Iranian territorial waters,” he said in a statement.
A defense source said it would not be possible to say definitively where the men were when they were detained until experts are allowed to study Global Positioning System equipment that was confiscated by the Iranians.
“Our assessment continues and will be greatly assisted by the retrieval of navigational information in the Global Positioning System equipment carried by the crews,” Hoon said.
He also called on Tehran to return the three river patrol boats and equipment seized when it took the men into custody. The gear included weapons, ammunition, radios and navigational equipment.
The Foreign Office stressed that discussions with Tehran continued.
“Discussions are ongoing between all the parties involved,” said a spokesman, on customary condition of anonymity.
The men were detained in the waterway June 21 as they were delivering a patrol boat for the new Iraqi river patrol service. The waterway runs along the border between Iran and Iraq and has long been a source of tension between the neighbors.
During their detention, the men were paraded blindfolded on Iran’s main state-run television channel. Tehran initially said they would be prosecuted, but after high-level negotiations, including telephone calls between British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi, the eight were released June 24.
Hoon said the men were issued with modern charts and equipment that should be sufficient to prevent them straying across the border.
“We are very concerned about the blindfolding of the men and have made representations to the government of Iran,” Hoon added. “We have made it clear that we do not expect a recurrence of this incident.”
One of the men returned to Britain on Wednesday for medical reasons associated with the incident and two others came home as their tour of duty in Iraq had ended, Hoon added. The remaining five continued to work in Iraq.
London’s relations with Tehran have run hot and cold for years. But they dipped significantly earlier this month when Britain helped draft an International Atomic Energy Agency resolution deploring Iran’s lack of cooperation with nuclear inspectors.
Some analysts believe Tehran detained the sailors as a way of expressing its displeasure with the resolution.
Last year also saw tensions on the 900-mile border Iran shares with Iraq. According to British officials, in July 2003 Iranian troops crossed the border near Basra in southern Iraq while building a road and established observation posts.
Britain discussed the infringement with Tehran through diplomatic channels and through lower level military contacts. It became clear the Iranians had mistaken where the border lay and retreated, a British diplomat said.
Eight UK servicemen seized by Iran last week on he Iran-Iraq border were “forcibly escorted into Iranian waters,” defense ministry says.