Friday, April 6, 2007
ROYAL MARINES BASE CHIVENOR, England (AFP) - The 15 British naval personnel held by Iran told Friday how they were stripped, blindfolded and handcuffed as part of "psychological" intimidation during their detention.
A day after their return to Britain, the group said they feared for their lives if they resisted and that they were threatened with seven years in jail if they did not confess to being in Iranian waters.
Royal Navy Lieutenant Felix Carman told a news conference of the mind games he said were used by their captors to get information and confessions.
"It was mainly psychological, emotional. The isolation was a major part of this; a complete suffocation in terms of information from the outside world," he added, describing questioning as "aggressive" and handling as "a bit rough."
"When we first went to prison we were put up against the wall, hands bound, blindfolded and people were cocking weapons in the background, which as you can imagine is an extremely nerve-wracking occasion."
Royal Marine Joe Tindell, 21, said he thought they were about to be executed and were having their throats cut one by one.
Iran has insisted that the 15 sailors and marines were in Iranian waters when detained. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced the release of the navy personnel on Wednesday, calling it a "gift" to the British people.
Carman said that on the second morning of their detention they were flown to Tehran and taken to a prison.
"Throughout our ordeal we faced constant psychological pressure," he said. "Later we were stripped and then dressed in pyjamas. The next few nights were spent in stone cells, approximately eight feet by six feet, sleeping on piles of blankets. All of us were kept in isolation."
The eight sailors and seven Royal Marines were captured in the northern Gulf on March 23 while carrying out what they said was a routine anti-smuggling operation.
Amid claims they surrendered too easily, Royal Marines Captain Chris Air said the Iranians "came with intent" and to resist would have caused loss of life and a major international incident.
"From the outset it was very apparent that fighting back was simply not an option. Had we chosen to do so then many of us would not be standing here today."
Air, 25, stressed that they were "well inside" Iraqi waters when captured.
Carman, 26, backed him up, describing their detention as "clearly illegal."
"Let me make it absolutely clear, irrespective of what has been said in the past, when we were detained by the IRG (Iranian Revolutionary Guard) we were inside internationally recognised Iraqi territorial waters and I can clearly state we were 1.7 nautical miles (3.15 kilometres) from Iranian waters."
He said their television appearances were a stunt for the cameras.
The only woman in the group, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 26, was separated from the men straight away and later told that the others had gone home four days earlier, the 15 said in a joint statement.
"She coped admirably," Air said, condemning the Iranians for using her as a "propaganda tool."
Turney was not present at the news conference at Royal Marines Base Chivenor in Devon, where the 15 spent their first night of freedom after being reunited with their families.
The sailors' comments were blasted by Iran, which accused Prime Minister
Tony Blair of "putting pressure" on them.
"The propaganda and the staged show cannot cover up the British military's violation of the Islamic Republic of Iran sea border and their repeated illegal entry," foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said.
"The immediate transfer of the sailors to a military camp suggests that they were acting under orders."
The White House on Friday condemned any mistreatment of the British service personnel.
Their testimony was "unfortunate and extremely disappointing if they were treated inappropriately in any way," national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
"If what they described is accurate then that would not seem to be appropriate behaviour and action."
Meanwhile, Royal Navy chief Admiral Sir Jonathon Band said Britain had suspended ship-boarding operations in the Gulf and opened an official inquiry to look at the rules of engagement, intelligence gathering, equipment and procedures to prevent any repeat of the incident.
The group's return Thursday made headline news in Britain, but coverage was tempered by the deaths of four soldiers, including two women, in a roadside bomb attack in southern
Blair on Thursday repeated his assertion that "elements" in Iran were backing insurgent attacks in Iraq, although he said it was too early to say whether there were definite links for the latest attack.
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
Fifteen British sailors and marines held captive for nearly two weeks left
Iran early Thursday aboard a commercial flight bound for London, ending a standoff a day after Iran's president announced their surprise release.
The British crew sat in business class on the British Airways flight that departed Mehrabad International Airport around 8:30 a.m. local time (1 a.m. EDT), an Associated Press reporter at the scene reported.
They arrived at the airport in a convoy of black sedans about an hour earlier escorted by the elite Revolutionary Guards. British ambassador to Iran, Geoffrey Adams, who was at the airport, declined to comment.
Before boarding, the sailors received gifts given to them on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's behalf, Iran's state-run news agency, IRNA, reported.
The hardline president's announcement of their release Wednesday defused a growing confrontation between the two countries. In London, British Prime Minister
Tony Blair expressed "profound relief" over the peaceful end to the 13-day crisis, telling the Iranian people that "we bear you no ill will."
The crisis had raised oil prices and fears of military conflict in the volatile region. The move to release the sailors suggested that Iran's hardline leadership decided it had shown its strength but did not want to push the standoff too far.
Iran did not get the main thing it sought — a public apology for entering Iranian waters. Britain, which said its crew was in Iraqi waters when seized, insists it never offered a quid pro quo, either, instead relying on quiet diplomacy.
Syria, Iran's close ally, said it played a role in winning the release. "Syria exercised a sort of quiet diplomacy to solve this problem and encourage dialogue between the two parties," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said in Damascus.
The announcement of the release came hours after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (news, bio, voting record) met with President Bashar Assad in Damascus, trying to show that a U.S. dialogue with Syria — rejected by the Bush administration — could bring benefits for the Middle East. The British sailors were not part of their talks, and it was not clear if the release was timed to coincide with her visit.
Several British newspapers credited Blair's foreign policy adviser Nigel Sheinwald and Iranian chief negotiator Ali Larijani with laying the groundwork for an agreement during telephone contacts that began Tuesday night. Larijani had gone on British TV on Monday and signaled that Tehran was looking for a diplomatic solution.
British officials were told to pay close attention to Ahmadinejad's press conference but were unsure the release would come until they heard his words, The Independent newspaper said.
Ahmadinejad timed the announcement so as to make a dramatic splash, springing it halfway through a two-hour news conference.
The president first gave a medal of honor to the commander of the Iranian coast guards who captured the Britons, and admonished London for sending a mother, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, on such a dangerous mission in the Persian Gulf.
He said the British government was "not brave enough" to admit the crew had been in Iranian waters when it was captured.
Ahmadinejad then declared that even though Iran had the right to put the Britons on trial, he had "pardoned" them to mark the March 30 birthday of the Prophet Muhammad and the coming Easter holiday.
"This pardon is a gift to the British people," he said.
After the news conference, Iranian television showed a beaming Ahmadinejad on the steps of the presidential palace shaking hands with the Britons — some towering over him. The men were decked out in business suits and Turney wore an Islamic head scarf.
"Your people have been really kind to us, and we appreciate it very much," one of the British men told Ahmadinejad in English. Another male service member said: "We are grateful for your forgiveness."
Ahmadinejad responded in Farsi, "You are welcome."
Three members of the crew were later interviewed on Iranian state-run television, apologizing for the alleged incursion into Iran's waters and again thanking Ahmadinejad for their release.
"I can understand why you're insulted by the intrusion into the waters," said Lt. Felix Carman, shown seated on a couch.
"Thank you for letting us go and we apologize for our actions, but many thanks for having it in your hearts to let us go free," Turney said.
The breakthrough caught the British government by surprise. On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett cautioned reporters not to expect a quick end to the standoff.
The U.S. cautiously welcomed Iran's announcement, though Vice President
Dick Cheney said "it was unfortunate that they were ever taken in the first place."
During the standoff, Iran broadcast footage of Turney and some other crew members "confessing" they had entered Iranian waters. An infuriated Britain froze most bilateral contacts, prompting Tehran to roll back on a pledge to free Turney.
Wednesday's announcement led some analysts to conclude that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decided the crisis had gone on long enough at a time when Tehran faces mounting pressure over its nuclear program. A day after the British were seized, the
U.N. Security Council imposed new sanctions on Iran for refusing to halt uranium enrichment.
During Ahmadinejad's news conference, the hardline president said Britain had sent a letter to the Iranian Foreign Ministry pledging that entering Iranian waters "will not happen again." Tehran had demanded an apology for the alleged entry into its waters.
Britain's Foreign Office would not give details about the letter but said its position was clear that the detained crew had been in Iraqi waters.
Regardless of the territorial issue, the standoff showed that Tehran has ways to push back after the U.S. and Britain beefed up their military presence in the Persian Gulf this year.
The U.S. has accused Iran of sending weapons to Shiite militias in
Iraq. That led to speculation that the Iranians seized the Britons in retaliation for the detention of five Iranians by U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil in January. Iran denied any connection.
Shortly before the announcement, Iranian state media reported that an Iranian envoy would be allowed to meet the five Iranians. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said American authorities were considering the request, although an international Red Cross team, including one Iranian, had visited the prisoners.
Another Iranian diplomat, separately seized two months ago by uniformed gunmen in Iraq, was released and returned Tuesday to Tehran. Iran accused the Americans of abducting him, a charge the U.S. denied.
(I wonder what this sudden gesture on the part of that meglomaniac really means?! )