British Sailors Land in London

The 15 British sailors and marines Iran captured two weeks ago are home. Britain says it hopes to resolve any future disagreements peacefully.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Fifteen British sailors and marines held captive by Iran for nearly two weeks are now in Britain. They arrived at London Heathrow Airport, smiling and wearing fresh military uniforms. Their homecoming came on the same day that four British soldiers were killed in a roadside bombing in southern Iraq.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said his country is grieving and rejoicing at the same time.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Great Britain): On the one hand, we are glad that our service personnel returned, safe and unharmed from their captivity. But on the other, we return to the sober and ugly reality of what is happening through terrorism in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking today in London.

The release of the British crew brings to an end the diplomatic standoff between Britain and Iran. The sailors and marines returned to Britain one day after Iran's president said he was releasing them as a gift to the British people. After they have a reunion with their families, the crew will spend the next several days undergoing debriefings by British officials.

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British Sailors Return Home from Iran

Faye Turney, Simony Massey smile on arrival at airport in London.

Having changed into fresh uniforms for the flight home, British crew members Faye Turney and Simon Massey chat at Heathrow airport in London. Bruno Vincent/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bruno Vincent/Getty Images
Freed British servicewoman Faye Turney drinks coffee as she waits to leave Iran. i i

Freed British servicewoman Turney drinks coffee as she waits with fellow sailors at Mehrabad airport before leaving Iran. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption AFP/Getty Images
Freed British servicewoman Faye Turney drinks coffee as she waits to leave Iran.

Freed British servicewoman Turney drinks coffee as she waits with fellow sailors at Mehrabad airport before leaving Iran.

AFP/Getty Images

ROYAL MARINE BASE CHIVENOR, England (AP) — Fifteen Royal Navy sailors and marines held captive by Iran returned home Thursday to a nation relieved at their freedom but also outraged that they were used by Tehran's propaganda machine.

Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that no deal had been cut for their release and he called for continued international pressure on the hard-line Iranian regime.

The crew broke open champagne and changed into fresh uniforms on the flight home. After landing at Heathrow airport, they smiled and stood at attention before being whisked by helicopter to the Royal Marines base at Chivenor, southwest of London.

They are expected to be debriefed on their 13-day ordeal and reunited with family members at the Chivenor base, which is 210 miles southwest of London.

Wednesday's announcement by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the Britons had been released was a breakthrough in a crisis that had raised oil prices and escalated fears of military conflict in the volatile region. The move to release the sailors suggested that Iran's hard-line leadership decided it had shown its strength but

did not want to push the standoff too far.

Iran did not get the main thing it sought — a public apology for entering Iranian waters. Britain, which said its crew was in Iraqi waters when seized, insists it never offered a quid pro quo, either, instead relying on quiet diplomacy.

Syria, Iran's close ally, said it played a role in winning the release.

Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed the sailors' return Thursday but called for continued international pressure on Tehran following the deaths of four servicemen in an attack in southern Iraq earlier in the day.

The soldiers were killed in an ambush involving a roadside bomb and small-arms fire, the military said. It was the biggest loss of life for British forces since Nov. 12, when four were killed while on patrol on the Shatt Al-Arab waterway in Basra.

"On the one hand we are glad that our service personnel return safe and unharmed from their captivity, but on the other we return to the sober and ugly reality of what is happening through terrorism in Iraq, terrorism designed specifically to thwart the will of the international community," Blair said.

"Now it is far too early to say that the particular terrorist act that killed our forces was an acted committed by terrorists that were backed by any elements of the Iranian regime, so I make no allegation in respect of that particular incident," Blair said.

Blair said Britain had managed to secure release of crew without any deal or negotiations.

On Wednesday, Iranian state media reported that an Iranian envoy would be allowed to meet five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq. A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said American authorities were considering the request, although an international Red Cross team, including one Iranian, had visited the prisoners.

Another Iranian diplomat, separately seized two months ago by uniformed gunmen in Iraq, was released and returned Tuesday to Tehran. Iran accused the Americans of abducting him, a charge the U.S. denied.

Those developments led to speculation that the release of the Britons had been connected to the events in Iraq. Both Iran and Britain denied any connection.

Ahmadinejad timed Wednesday's announcement so as to make a dramatic splash, springing it halfway through a two-hour news conference.

The president first gave a medal of honor to the commander of the Iranian coast guards who captured the Britons, and admonished London for sending a mother, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, on such a dangerous mission in the Persian Gulf.

He said the British government was "not brave enough" to admit the crew had been in Iranian waters when it was captured.

Ahmadinejad then declared that even though Iran had the right to put the Britons on trial, he had "pardoned" them to mark the March 30 birthday of the Prophet Muhammad and the coming Easter holiday.

"This pardon is a gift to the British people," he said.

After the news conference, Iranian television showed a beaming Ahmadinejad on the steps of the presidential palace shaking hands with the Britons — some towering over him. The men were decked out in business suits and Turney wore an Islamic head scarf.

"Your people have been really kind to us, and we appreciate it very much," one of the British men told Ahmadinejad in English. Another male service member said: "We are grateful for your forgiveness."

Ahmadinejad responded in Farsi, "You are welcome."

Three members of the crew were later interviewed on Iranian state-run TV, apologizing for the alleged incursion into Iran's waters and again thanking Ahmadinejad for their release.

"I can understand why you're insulted by the intrusion into the waters," said Lt. Felix Carman, shown seated on a couch.

"Thank you for letting us go and we apologize for our actions, but many thanks for having it in your hearts to let us go free," Turney said.

The British crew was seized March 23 as it searched for smugglers. Iran broadcast footage of Turney and some other crew

members "confessing" they had entered Iranian waters. An infuriated Britain froze most bilateral contacts, prompting Tehran to roll back on a pledge to free Turney.

During Ahmadinejad's news conference, he said Britain had sent a letter to the Iranian Foreign Ministry pledging that entering Iranian waters "will not happen again." Britain's Foreign Office would not give details about the letter but said its position was clear that the detained crew had been in Iraqi waters.

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