Iran seizes 3 British vessels and 8 sailors

Posted in Iran | 22-Jun-04 | Author: Lizette Alvarez and Nazila Fat| Source: The New York Times

38 Battery Royal Artillery in a British Army combat support Boat on patrol in the Shatt al-Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran.
London says boats were meant for Iraqi Patrol Service

LONDON Iran seized three on Monday and arrested all eight sailors on board, the Iranian Foreign Ministry announced, saying the boats had entered Iranian waters without permission.

The British Defense Ministry confirmed that the Iranian government had seized the boats and detained the sailors after they entered Iranian waters. The boats were described as inflatable.

The Royal Navy was delivering the three boats to the Iraqi Riverine Patrol Service when the eight sailors from the Royal Navy training team were stopped on the Shatt al-Arab, a stretch of water that marks the southern boundary between Iran and Iraq.

British forces now control areas around southern Iraq and the city of Basra, near the river.

The British government stressed that boats were ‘‘very small,’’ a spokesman said, and were not outfitted with weapons, although the military personnel on board were armed.

The Defense Ministry said it lost contact with the boats Monday morning.

The sailors on board were assigned to train Iraqis to use the boats, a navy spokesman said.

British forces routinely patrol Shatt al-Arab, which is often used as a smuggling route for Iraqi contraband oil and as an entry point for militants, so their presence on the river was not unusual. As the only water route into the Gulf, the Shatt al-Arab is strategically valued by both Iraq and Iran and has long been a source of conflict between the two countries.

Tension over navigational rights to the river, which is about a mile wide, was one reason the two countries went to war in 1980. The arrests come during a time of strained relations between Iran and Britain, mostly over the war in Iraq and Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

The British Embassy in Tehran has faced a series of demonstrations over accusations that British troops abused Iraqi prisoners and desecrated Iraqi holy Shiite cities. Britain also recently co-sponsored, along with France and Germany, a critical resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency condemning Iran’s lack of cooperation with nuclear arms inspectors. Still, British officials sought to play down the incident as relatively minor. Hamid Reza Asefi, a spokesman for the Iranian foreign minister, said the sailors were being questioned by the Iranian Navy and had admitted they entered Iranian territory. ‘‘The crews are under investigation in order to clarify the issue,’’ he said. While Asefi gave no indication when, or if, the sailors and ships would be released, an Iranian military spokesman told the BBC that, if the investigation turned up no malicious intent, the sailors would be freed. Iranian state television’s Arabic-language channel, Al Alam, said Iranian military personnel had found assault rifles, pistols, cameras, maps of the Iran-Iraq border and global navigation devices on the boats. The Royal Navy spokesman disputed that the boats and military personnel aboard posed a threat, saying that although the British sailors were armed, as is customary, the small boats were not outfitted with weapons and are used to conduct patrols up and down the river.

Massoud Jazaeri, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards, a branch of Iran’s armed services, told Reuters that Iran would not hesitate to protect its borders. ‘‘Anyone from any nationality entering our waters will face the same response,’’ Jazaeri said.

Lizette Alvarez reported from London for this article and Nazila Fathi from Tehran.