Iranian naval forces took 15 British sailors and marines captive early Friday in the northern Persian Gulf. The British and Iranian governments disagree on whether the British forces were operating in Iranian or Iraqi territorial waters. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
The coalition naval command in Bahrain says two British boats were conducting routine operations in Iraqi waters Friday morning.
U.S. Navy spokeswoman Lieutenant Kaye Trammell, at coalition naval headquarters in Bahrain, says after inspecting a small boat and allowing it to proceed, the British force was overwhelmed by a larger force from Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy.
"Approximately six Iranian vessels surrounded the British vessels, and took them to Iran," she said.
Lieutenant Trammell says there was no exchange of fire during the incident. Ships from the Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy operate separately from Iran's regular navy. They are normally armed with large machine guns, while officials say the British force was carrying only small weapons.
British officials have confirmed that they are working with the Iranian government to get their people and boats returned. Iran claims the British were operating in their territorial waters, but Britain denies the charge, as does the coalition naval spokeswoman, Lieutenant Trammell.
"The border in the territorial sea in the approaches to the Shaat al-Arab [waterway] remains unsettled," said Lieutenant Trammell. "But in this case, the boarding teams from the Cornwall were operating well inside the observed Iraqi territorial waters."
The British sailors and marines were from the ship HMS Cornwall. Lieutenant Trammell says the Cornwall and the smaller boats were involved in the type of operations the coalition task force does every day in the Persian Gulf.
"This was an entirely routine operation," she said. "One of the main missions is to conduct maritime security operations. And one of the pieces [aspects] of maritime security operations is to go around to various vessels that are in the area."
Britain's foreign office in London summoned the Iranian ambassador and demanded the "immediate and safe return" of the British sailors and marines, and their equipment.
The White House and Defense Department spokesmen also called for the release of the British troops.
Three years ago, six British marines and two sailors were seized by Iranian forces in the same area. Iran showed the men on television, wearing blindfolds. They were released three days later.