TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) -Iran on Saturday insisted that 15 British sailors it seized had illegally entered Iranian waters, denouncing what it called a “blatant aggression” and accusing Britain of trying to cover up an incursion into its territory.
The tough comment came after Britain demanded the return of the sailors and denied they had strayed into Iranian waters while searching for smugglers off Iraq’s coast.
The eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Royal Marines had just searched a merchant ship when they and their two inflatable boats were intercepted by Iranian vessels Friday at around 10:30 a.m. near the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway, U.S. and British officials said. The Iranian vessels surrounded them and escorted them away at gunpoint.
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported that the 15 Britons have been transferred to the capital Tehran “to explain their aggressive action.” There was no immediate official confirmation of the move.
The agency said the 15 included “some women.” In Britain, officials told the Press Association news agency that at least one woman was among the group.
The incident came at a time of heightened tensions over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and allegations that Iran is arming Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Iran was carrying out a “further investigation … of the blatant aggression.”
“Violating the sovereign boundaries of other states and illegal entry denote unusual goals in violation of international commitments, the responsibility for which cannot be evaded under any justification,” Hosseini said, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
Hosseini described the incident as a “suspicious move” and accused Britain of trying to cover up the illegal entry.
“The British officials instead of making up for their blunders should try to refrain from putting the blame on others by way of irrelevant interpretations,” he said.
Iran summoned the British charge d’affaires to the Foreign Ministry Friday and demanded an immediate explanation from London and “asked that this not happen again,” according to Iran’s state-run television.
Britain, in turn, demanded Tehran release the 15. In London, the British government summoned the Iranian ambassador to the Foreign Office, and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said he “was left in no doubt that we want them back.”
Britain’s Defense Ministry said the Royal Navy personnel were in Iraqi territorial waters when they were seized.
Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain also said it was “very clear” they were in Iraqi waters.
“We’ve been on operations there for several years,” Aandahl said. He said coalition vessels respect a boundary between Iraq and Iran as running down the middle of the Shatt al-Arab.
But the Iraqi military commander of the country’s territorial waters cast doubt on the British claims.
“We were informed by Iraqi fishermen after they had returned from sea that there were British gunboats in an area that is out of Iraqi control,” Brig. Gen. Hakim Jassim told AP Television News in the southern city of Basra.
“We don’t know why they were there. And these British troops were besieged by unknown gunboats, I don’t know from where,” he said.
The sailors, from the frigate HMS Cornwall, are part of a task force that maintains security in Iraqi waters under authority of the U.N. Security Council.
The Cornwall’s commander, Commodore Nick Lambert, said the frigate lost communication with the boarding party, but a helicopter crew saw Iranian naval vessels approach.
“I’ve got 15 sailors and marines who have been arrested by the Iranians and my immediate concern is their safety,” he told British Broadcasting Corp. television.
Lambert said he hoped it was a “simple mistake” stemming from the long dispute between Iraq and Iran over demarcating their territorial waters just off the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, known in Iran as Arvandrud, Farsi for the Arvand River.
The border around the 125-mile-long channel has long been disputed. A 1975 treaty recognized the middle of the waterway as the border. Saddam Hussein canceled the treaty five years later and invaded Iran, triggering an eight-year war. Virtually all of Iraq’s oil is exported through an oil terminal near the mouth of the channel.
In June 2004, six British marines and two sailors were seized by Iran in the same waterway. They were presented blindfolded on Iranian television and admitted entering Iranian waters illegally, then released unharmed after three days.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the Bush administration was monitoring events. “The British government is demanding the immediate safe return of the people and equipment and we are keeping watch on the situation,” Snow said.
The incident occurred as the U.N. Security Council debates expanding sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment. A vote was expected later Saturday. The U.S. and other nations suspect Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons. Iran denies that and insists it won’t halt the program.
Iran’s leaders also have denied allegations by the U.S., Britain and others that Iranians are arming Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq.
With tensions running high, the United States has bolstered its naval forces in the Persian Gulf. A strike group led by the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis recently joined a similar force led by the carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that with so much military hardware in the Gulf, a small incident like Friday’s could escalate into a dangerous confrontation.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, warned this week that if Western countries “treat us with threats and enforcement of coercion and violence, undoubtedly they must know that the Iranian nation and authorities will use all their capacities to strike enemies that attack.”