CHIVENOR (Reuters) - Fifteen British military personnel freed by Iran after a two-week stand-off were reunited with their families on Thursday as attention turned to how the incident could impact on nuclear diplomacy.
The 14 men and one woman hugged and kissed tearful relatives at an air base in southwest England ahead of a debriefing session, after landing in London from Tehran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the surprise of the 15, their families and the British government, said on Wednesday he had decided to forgive and free the group, who were seized along with their patrol boats in the northern Gulf on March 23.
Iran said they had strayed into its waters but Britain said they were in Iraqi waters on a regular U.N. mission.
In a statement released several hours after their return, the 15 said their arrival at Heathrow airport had been a “dream come true” and said they would not forget the welcome.
“The past two weeks have been very difficult, but by staying together as a team, we kept our spirits up, drawing great comfort from the knowledge that our loved ones would be waiting for us on our return,” they said in a statement read out by a Royal Marines spokesman.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed their safe return but said the death of four British soldiers in Iran’s neighbor Iraq earlier on Thursday had tempered any sense of jubilation. Two of the four killed were women, the Ministry of Defense said.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates would not be drawn into linking the release of the British sailors with any possible change in U.S. policy towards the Islamic Republic.
“I don’t think there’s any connection between his action to release the British sailors and what might or might not happen between the United States and Iran in the future in terms of talks, or anything else, for that matter,” Gates told a Pentagon news conference.
The United States has led international pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program, which the West fears is ultimately designed to produce atomic bombs. Iran says its nuclear program is for purely civilian purposes.
The peaceful end to the stand-off with the world’s fourth largest oil exporter prompted a drop in oil prices.
Iran said on Thursday the group had been released because Blair had sent a personal letter of apology over the incident -- a statement that was “categorically denied” by Blair’s office.
Blair said a dual-track policy of quiet diplomacy and tough international support had paid dividends, and the incident had opened up new channels of communication with Iran that it would be “sensible to pursue”.
“However, the international community has got to remain absolutely steadfast in enforcing its will, whether it’s in respect of nuclear weapons or in respect of the support of any part of the Iranian regime for terrorism,” he said.
Analysts said it was positive that Blair’s top foreign policy adviser Nigel Sheinwald had talked directly to Ali Larijani, Iran’s main nuclear negotiator.
“Larijani is no moderate but he is a pragmatist and the hope has been that he would find a way to reach a face-saving deal on suspension (of uranium enrichment),” said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for Non-Proliferation at the Institute for Strategic Studies.
European Union president Germany said it hoped the incident would enhance dialogue with Tehran over its nuclear program.
One consequence of the incident, BBC radio reported, was that the British navy would no longer be able to board merchant vessels in the Gulf because Iran had confiscated the only two boats used to carry out the work.
Officials said that was likely to be a temporary problem and would change once new equipment was delivered to the region. U.S. and other forces would continue to board suspect vessels.
Additional reporting by Edumund Blair, David Clarke, Jeremy Lovell and Katherine Baldwin in London and Noah Barkin in Berlin