TEHRAN, (Reuters) – The 15 British military personnel who had been held by Iran flew out of Tehran for England on Thursday, ending a two-week standoff that strained already tense relations between Iran and the West.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a news conference broadcast round the world on Wednesday he had decided to forgive and free the 15 sailors and marines even though Britain was not “brave enough” to admit they had strayed into Iranian waters.
The peaceful end to the standoff, which began when the world’s fourth largest oil exporter seized the 15 in the northern Gulf on March 23, prompted a drop in oil prices from recent highs. U.S. stock futures and the dollar rose in relief.
Iranian officials whisked the 15 through the airport to board a scheduled flight, due to arrive in London at 1105 GMT.
The aircraft’s business class section was cleared for the sole use of the former captives and those accompanying them, with some people downgraded to economy class.
After the flight left, Iranian television showed more interviews and images of the group, wearing civilian clothing, drinking tea and clutching colourful gift bags. “The treatment has been great. It will be nice to get back and get home to see my family,” said Faye Turney, the only woman in the group. “Thank you for letting us go. We apologise for our actions,” she added, wearing a headscarf and looking strained.
On their arrival, the 15 were to be transferred to military helicopters and flown to a Royal Air Force base in southwestern England to meet their families away from the eyes of the media, and for debriefing.
Even before they had touched down, the post-mortem began on what closed-door deals might have been struck and just what it meant for relations between Iran and the West.
The Daily Mirror carried the headline “Freedom!” but said: “Now the questions: Were they in Iranian waters? What deals were done? And has this been a diplomatic triumph for Blair or a humiliation for Britain?” And the Daily Telegraph asked “was a secret deal struck to secure the release of 15 British prisoners?”.
The dispute centred on where the Britons were when they were seized. Britain says they were in Iraqi waters on a routine U.N. mission. Tehran says they strayed into its territorial waters.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Ahmadinejad said: “Under the influence of the Muslim Prophet, (Iran) forgives these 15 people and gives their freedom to the British people as a gift.”
Afterwards he met several of the sailors and marines, dressed in suits provided for them in Iran, shaking hands with them and exchanging a few words through an interpreter.
In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters shortly afterwards: “Throughout we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting either … To the Iranian people I would simply say this: we bear you no ill will.”