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UK

Iran considers charges against sailors

BERLIN (Reuters) - Iran said on Sunday it was considering charging 15 British sailors and marines with illegally entering its waters, but added it may give consular access to them after an investigation.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki speaks to members of the media about the U.N. Security Council's unanimous vote to increase sanctions against Iran for refusing to eliminate their nuclear program during a news conference in New York March 25, 2007. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

Prime Minister Tony Blair denied the navy personnel had been in Iranian waters and said Tehran should be under no illusion how seriously Britain considers the detentions.

The incident raised tensions that were already high with the West over Tehran’s nuclear programme. The U.N. Security Council imposed new sanctions on Iran on Saturday. London and Washington have also accused Tehran of fomenting violence in Iraq.

“This is a very serious situation and there is no doubt at all that these people were taken from a boat in Iraqi waters,” Blair told reporters at a European Union summit in Berlin.

Iran captured the 15 Royal Navy personnel at the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which marks the southern stretch of Iraq’s border with Iran, in the Gulf on Friday.

“The charge against them is the illegal entrance into Iranian waters and this issue is being considered legally,” Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters at the United Nations.

An Iranian official said Mottaki told Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett in a telephone call that Iran may give British diplomats access to the detained sailors at some later stage.

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.

Beckett told Mottaki the personnel should be released.

“She made it very clear that our personnel were operating in Iraqi waters,” a British foreign office spokesman said. “She called for their safe return and asked for immediate consular access”.

No immediate timetable for further contacts was established.

“They should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which was unjustified and wrong,” Blair said in his first statement since the sailors were seized.

Unlike the United States, Britain has diplomatic relations with Iran. Blair had initially refrained from commenting publicly on the capture to avoid raising the stakes with Tehran.

The Iranian government says the sailors strayed into its territory and foreign ministry official Ebrahim Rahimpour said Tehran had tried to remain patient over border violations.

“But violations, incidents and contradictory remarks of British officials after each incident have created reactions among (Iranian) people and officials,” Rahimpour said, according to the official IRNA news agency on Sunday.

“This has led us to more and more precise investigations in regards to these suspicious incidents,” he was quoted as saying.

CONSULAR ACCESS

The incident sent oil prices 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.

Blair said it was “simply not true” the British forces had entered Iranian territorial waters. “The quicker it is resolved, the easier it will be for all of us,” he said.

Britain’s Ambassador Geoffrey Adams met Rahimpour on Sunday and requested access to the captured sailors, a British diplomat in Tehran told Reuters.

“Iranian officials in charge are following up this issue,” Iran’s Rahimpour said later.

Iranian television reported the meeting, without giving details. It said the British envoy had been summoned.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported on Saturday the 15 sailors and marines had been transferred to Tehran. This has not been independently confirmed.

Additional reporting by Edmund Blair and Frederick Dahl in Tehran, Jeremy Lovell in London

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