TEHRAN (AFP) – Britain pressed Iran on Thursday for access to 15 sailors whose detention has set off a major diplomatic crisis, voicing concern after state television aired pictures of the captured personnel.
International pressure was mounting on Tehran to release the group but the British embassy said it still had no news on their fate.
And an influential Iranian MP warned Britain against “bullying” after London froze official contacts with Tehran over the standoff.
The only woman sailor, who Iran has promised to release soon, was shown in the television footage broadcast on Wednesday saying they had trespassed into Iranian waters.
It was the first time the 15 had been seen since they were seized at gunpoint by Iran during what Britain said was a routine patrol of Iraqi waters in the northern Gulf on Friday.
“We have no information for the moment about a consular visit with the 15 sailors and the release of Faye Turney,” a British diplomat told AFP.
“Ambassador Geoffrey Adams has asked for another visit with foreign ministry officials. We are awaiting a response.”
Iran’s Arabic language Al-Alam television showed the Britons having a meal and featured Turney, 26, wearing a black headscarf and saying: “Obviously we trespassed in the waters.”
“They were friendly, very hospitable, very thoughtful. Nice people,” she said of her captors, who have kept them at a secret location and not allowed them any contact with British diplomats.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said she was “very concerned” about the pictures and “any indication of pressure on or coercion of our personnel” who she said were on a routine operation in accordance with international law.
The crisis erupted at a time of high international tensions over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme which the West fears could be a cover for ambitions to build atomic weapons.
The crisis has sent oil prices soaring to six-month highs of around 64 dollars a barrel in Asian trade.
Iran insists the 15 had “illegally entered” its territorial waters, but on Wednesday said Turney would be released in one or two days.
However, a British Foreign Office spokesman said: “Obviously the release of one person, one of the military personnel and not the others, is not good enough.”
Beckett on Wednesday also announced a freeze in official dealings with Iran.
“We need to focus all our bilateral efforts during this phase on the resolution of this issue,” she said. “We will therefore be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran.”
But Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of Iran’s influential parliamentary national security commission, said “Britain should know the time of bullying is gone.”
“Detaining the violating British forces was a response to an aggression,” he told the Fars news agency on Wednesday. “Threatening to severe trade ties and such language only further complicates the issue.”
On Wednesday, British military chiefs used maps and GPS coordinates to affirm that the navy personnel were 1.7 nautical miles within Iraqi waters at the northern end of the Gulf.
But the Iranian embassy in London insisted that the British personnel had “illegally entered” up to 500 metres (yards) within Iranian territorial waters.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair emphasised his country’s determination in the dispute.
“It is now time to ratchet up the diplomatic and international pressure,” Blair told lawmakers, adding that “there was no justification whatever” for the detention of the sailors.
There has been speculation that Tehran could use the British personnel either to trade for five Iranians being held by US forces in Iraq or to seek concessions over Iran’s nuclear drive.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said he had told Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki that the seizure of the British sailors was “unacceptable” .
“We hope that in the coming days and coming weeks the Iranian leaders will show wisdom to resolve this problem with Great Britain,” he added.
The United States, which has already voiced “concern and outrage” over the incident, denied that an unusual exercise involving two US aircraft carrier strike groups in the Gulf was aimed at raising tensions with Iran.