Beckett demands Iran release British sailors

The government has demanded the immediate release of 15 British naval personnel taken hostage at gunpoint by Iran.

Sir Peter Ricketts, the permanent undersecretary of the Foreign Office, summoned the Iranian ambassador Rasoul Movahedian to the department for “brisk but cordial” talks this afternoon.

“He demanded the safe return of our personnel and equipment,” a Foreign Office spokesman said.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has confirmed 15 British naval personnel on routine patrols in the Gulf were seized by Iranian naval vessels this morning.

The foreign secretary Margaret Beckett was on constituency business and is yet to meet with Iranian officials but confirmed an inquiry was underway.

Speaking to BBC News 24, Ms Beckett said the UK had sought a full explanation for what happened and had left the Iranian officials in “no doubt” the UK wanted the immediate release of the sailors.

“I was extremely disturbed to hear of the detention of 15 Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel and their equipment today,” she said.

Based on HMS Cornwall, the sailors were engaged in anti-smuggling operations at the time of the incident.

“The boarding party had completed a successful inspection of a merchant ship when they and their two boats were surrounded and escorted by Iranian vessels into Iranian territorial waters,” the MoD said.

“We are urgently pursuing this matter with the Iranian authorities at the highest level and on the instructions of the foreign secretary, the Iranian ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office.

“The British government is demanding the immediate and safe return of our people and equipment,” the MoD stressed.

British officials maintain the sailors were in Iraqi waters, where they were helping to train the Iraqi navy, at the time of the incident. However, shipping lanes in the region are narrow and it is thought the personnel were travelling close to the boundary.

Ms Beckett insisted the personnel had been operating in Iraqi waters in support of the Iraqi government, in accordance with UN resolution 1723.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell described the initial reports as “extremely concerning” and called for the immediate release of navy personnel.

“British forces in Iraq have authority of a UN security council resolution. They should be released immediately and the Iranian government should be left in no doubt of the serious implications of their actions,” he warned.

The shadow foreign secretary William Hague agreed: “We support the government’s demand for the immediate and safe return of our people and equipment and welcome the fact that the Iranian ambassador has been summoned to the FCO.”