Captive UK sailors ‘confess’ to Iran incursion

Fifteen Royal Navy personnel seized by Iran yesterday have reportedly admitted to straying into the Middle Eastern country’s waters.

General Alia Reza Afshar told Iranian media that the eight sailors and seven marines taken captive in the Gulf have “confessed to illegal entry into Iran’s waters”.

British diplomats are continuing to demand the immediate release of the sailors, who Gen Afshar says are being interrogated but not mistreated.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is adamant that its personnel were in Iraqi waters when they were seized at gunpoint, but Tehran insists they had strayed into Iranian territory.

There is confusion over where the Britons, which according to reports include one woman, are being held, with Iran’s Fars news agency initially saying they had been taken to Tehran. This claim appears to have now been withdrawn however.

It emerged yesterday that the 15 individuals had been seized at 10:30 local time (07:30 GMT) in the Shatt al-Arab waterway, in what the MoD described as “routine boarding operations of merchant shipping in Iraqi territorial waters”.

Foreign secretary Margaret Beckett said she was “extremely disturbed” by the development, which echoes a similar incident involving British sailors three years ago, following “brisk but polite” talks with the Iranian ambassador to London yesterday.

Iran is maintaining today however that the British sailors were guilty of “illegal entry” into its waters.

The Middle Eastern country gave a statement to the UK’s charge d’affaires in Tehran, Kate Smith, saying it had delivered a “firm protest from Iran against the illegal entry of British sailors into Iranian territorial waters”.

Royal Navy Commodore Nick Lambert, commander of the coalition forces in the northern Gulf, told journalists yesterday: “My immediate concern obviously is for my people. I’ve got 15 sailors and marines who’ve been arrested by the Iranians and my immediate concern is that their safety and that their safe return to me is ensured.

“I know that my people behaved in an extremely professional way, I’ve been out with the boarding parties on many occasions myself.

“Everything I’ve seen from the report of the situation suggested that they reacted in impeccable fashion, totally professional, entirely in line with the rules of engagement and the direction that I have given them.”

Later today, the UN will vote on whether to impose further sanctions on Iran over its refusal to cease enriching uranium.

In 2004, eight British servicemen were taken hostage by Iran and held for three days in a similar dispute. The blindfolded men were forced to apologise on Iranian television for their actions before their ordeal was ended by diplomatic efforts.