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US Calls for British Sailors' Release


The United States is calling on Iran to immediately release the 15 sailors and marines seized in the waters of the Persian Gulf Friday. But, as VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, the United States is trying to stay out of the diplomatic spotlight on the issue.

Asked about the Iranian seizure of the British sailors, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino only said President Bush spoke with British Prime Minister Blair in a previously scheduled conference call.

"The president fully backs Tony Blair and our allies in Britain," she said.

State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the British sailors were operating legally in Iraqi waters and called on Iran to respond to Britain's call for their release.

"What's important to us is that the Iranians do the right thing here, that they heed Prime Minister Blair's call to release these sailors, and release them immediately and unconditionally," he said.

Britain says the two small Royal Navy patrol craft were in Iraqi waters when they were seized by sailors of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Iran disputes that, saying the craft had entered Iranian waters. The 15 were taken to Tehran for interrogation.

Prime Minister Blair told the House of Commons that it is now time to ratchet up the international and diplomatic pressure on Iran to secure the sailors' release.

The U.S. Navy is engaged in military exercises in Gulf waters, the largest such maneuvers since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. But State Department spokesman Casey said the exercises are normal and should not be read as a signal or message to Iran.

"The exercises that are ongoing certainly pose a threat to no nation, including Iran," he said. "And I don't believe anyone should draw a connection between those military exercises, which our naval forces do in various parts of the world all the time, and this particular situation with the British sailors that are being held."

Some analysts believe the Iranian action was actually aimed at the United States, perhaps in response to the U.S. military maneuvers. But Ken Katzman, an Iran analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says the United States is clearly letting Britain take the lead on the seizure of their service members.

"The problem with that theory, though, is that they've seized British [citizens], and the U.S. doesn't seem to be making any threats on behalf of Britain. The U.S. seems to have left this to Prime Minister Blair to solve himself," he said. "So the linkage between the U.S. and Britain is perhaps not as firm, perhaps, as Iran thinks it is."

Spokesman Casey also dismissed as speculation any talk of a swap of the British sailors for several Iranian men detained by U.S. forces in Iraq earlier this year. Iran claims the men are diplomats.

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