March 24, 2007 / 2:12 PM / 10 years ago

Iran says Britons confessed to territory violation

<p>A British patrol boat conducts a patrol in the Shatt al-Arab waterways of Basra, south of Baghdad, February 15, 2007. Iranian forces seized 15 British Royal Navy personnel who had searched a merchant ship on Friday, Britain said, triggering a diplomatic crisis.British Royal Marines/Crown Copyright/Handout</p>

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran's military said on Saturday British naval personnel seized in the Gulf confessed to entering Iranian waters illegally, but Britain maintained they were detained inside Iraqi territory and demanded their release.

Iranian forces captured 15 British sailors and marines on Friday at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which marks the southern stretch of Iraq's border with Iran. It sparked a diplomatic crisis at a time of increased tension over Tehran's nuclear standoff with the United States and other major powers.

The semi-official Fars news agency said they had been transferred to Tehran to explain their "aggressive action", but this could not be confirmed. Fars also said the group included some women.

"These people are under investigation and have confessed they have violated the waters of the Islamic Republic of Iran," the ISNA news agency quoted a military official as saying.

The official, Deputy Commander Alireza Afshar, told state radio the Britons were in good health. "The investigation is going on and they are healthy and there is no problem."

Iranian Arabic-language television station al-Alam later quoted him as saying the "confessions" would be made public soon without specifying how.

Afshar said they were detained on Friday by naval units of the Revolutionary Guards, the ideologically-driven wing of Iran's armed forces which has a separate command structure from the regular military.

Britain has not released the identities of the personnel.

"We still maintain they were in Iraqi waters when they were picked up," a British diplomat in Tehran said, adding he had no official information they had been moved to the capital.

<p>Iran's ambassador Rasoul Movahedian arrives at the Foreign Office in London March 23, 2007.Stephen Hird</p>

He said the British ambassador was expected to meet Iranian Foreign Ministry officials on Sunday and would press for their release as well access to them. "We would like to see them as soon as possible," the diplomat said.

ENVOYS SUMMONED

Britain said two boatloads of Royal Navy sailors and marines had searched a merchant vessel on a U.N. approved mission in Iraqi waters when Iranian gunboats encircled and captured them.

<p>Iran captured fifteen British Royal Navy personnel during a "routine boarding operation" in Iraqi waters on Friday, Britain's Ministry of Defense said.Graphic</p>

An Iraqi fisherman who said he saw Iranian forces detain them, said on Saturday the ship British forces were searching was anchored in Iraqi waters.

The incident sent oil prices up more than one percent to a three-month high on Friday. It took place a day after Iran launched a week of naval war games along its coast, including the Gulf's northern reaches which give access to the oil output of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait.

It also came ahead of Saturday's expected U.N. Security Council vote to impose new arms and financial sanctions on Iran over its refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program, which the West suspects is designed to make atom bombs.

Tehran denies the charge, saying it is only aimed at generating electricity and save its oil and gas for export.

The package of sanctions targets Iran's arms exports, its state-owned Bank Sepah and the Revolutionary Guards.

In London, Britain held an hour-long meeting with Iran's ambassador to demand the immediate release of the naval personnel, a Foreign Office spokeswoman said, in the second such meeting in London since Friday's incident.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards captured eight British servicemen in similar circumstances in 2004 and released them unharmed after three nights. Iran said they had crossed into its waters, which Britain disputed.

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Tehran, Michael Holden in London, Inal Ersan in Dubai and Aref Mohammed in Basra

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