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Iran to Release 8 British Servicemen But Transfer Delayed - 2004-06-23

Iran says it will free eight British navy crewmen captured Monday on the strategic waterway that divides Iraq and Iran, but talks on arrangements for the transfer continued into Wednesday evening. Iranian state television reported the Britons would not be freed until at least Thursday. The release would defuse an incident that has threatened to blow up into a diplomatic crisis.

British diplomats began making plans to get the eight Royal Navy crewmen out of Iran after Iranian officials announced the Britons were being freed.

Earlier, Iran had threatened to prosecute the British servicemen for intruding into Iranian territorial waters.

The eight crewmen and their three small patrol boats were seized Monday on the Shatt al-Arab waterway that forms the border between Iran and Iraq.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards captured the boats and confiscated the crewmen's weapons and communications gear. Iranian state-run television says Iran will keep the boats and equipment.

Announcement that the release was approved came just hours after Iranian television broadcast images of the British captives wearing blindfolds and being marched down a beach.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said those images had raised alarms in the British government, and those concerns were passed on to Iranian diplomats in London and Tehran.

A foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrat party, Menzies Campbell, told British radio the incident comes at a time of growing nervousness inside Iran.

"One has to remember that they are pretty nervous in Tehran at the moment," he said. "Remember this was one of the countries described as being part of the axis of evil. There are large numbers of American forces on their doorstep. And there is the continuing dispute about the nuclear aspirations of Iran, which have boiled up to the extent that the United Nations is now being very critical of the government."

Control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway has long been contested between Iran and Iraq, and the dispute was the source of an eight-year war the two countries fought in the 1980s.

The British defense ministry says the sailors and marines were delivering a boat to Iraq's new river patrol service when they were captured.

British officials say the crew may have strayed into waters claimed by Iran because of bad weather at the time, but any such incursion was not intentional.