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Britain Welcomes Release of Sailors Captured by Iran - 2004-06-24

Iran has given custody of eight British servicemen to British diplomats, ending an incident that had threatened to grow into a major diplomatic crisis.

British officials say the six Royal Marines and two Royal Navy sailors are resting and in good condition at the British Embassy compound in Tehran.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards seized the men and their three small patrol boats Monday on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which divides Iran and Iraq.

Iran had threatened to put the British crewmen on trial for illegally entering Iranian waters, but some high-level diplomacy in London and Tehran defused the situation.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is defending Britain's policy of what is called "constructive engagement" with Iran's Islamic government.

"We work hard on those relationships and sometimes those relationships are complicated but I am in no doubt at all that our policy of engagement with the government of Iran and the Islamic People's Republic of Iran is the best approach," Secretary Straw said.

One Iran expert, Ali Ansari of the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University, told British radio the incident reflects what he calls the "organized chaos" in Iran.

"Iran is a far more chaotic country than a lot of people seem to think it is,? Mr. Ansari said. ?There are many power centers, but its much more pluralistic than I think sometimes we accept. It is quite likely, for instance, that the whole issue began because of an overzealous local commander who decided to play his hand. Whether these individuals, the marines or the servicemen, got lost or not, I mean the fact is this gentleman decided to take matters into his own hands and Tehran has sort of had to react to this."

The affair at one point threatened to spiral into a crisis when Iranian television showed the captives being marched along a beach wearing blindfolds. The images set off alarms in the British government, and London expressed concern to Iran about the captives' treatment.

While the navy personnel have been freed, Iran did not give back their boats, weapons, and communications gear. British officials say negotiations were still going on over the equipment.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair says the former captives will return directly to their military units in Iraq as soon as they can depart from Tehran.