Britain Get Sailors Back, with Some Sad News

The joyful return of 15 British sailors and marines to Britain held by Iran for nearly two weeks has been marred by news of the deaths of a group of British soldiers and their translator in Iraq. Prime Minister Tony Blair said it is too early to tell who was behind the attack.

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Fifteen British sailors and marines were reunited with their families in England today. They had been detained for nearly two weeks after being captured by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf. Britain always maintained they were in Iraqi waters when they were seized.

Tehran accused the Royal Navy crew of entering Iranian territory illegally. Yesterday, they were freed by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Just ahead, our conversation with the father of one of the British sailors.

First, NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: The crew's British Airways flight landed at London's Heathrow Airport at around noon local time. By the time they disembarked, the crew had changed back into military uniform and they stood briefly on the tarmac before being ushered to two waiting helicopters.

As they'd left Tehran, Iranian state television had shown further interviews with two of the service personnel who'd previously confessed to entering Iranian waters illegally. The only woman in the group, leading seaman Faye Turney and Lieutenant Felix Carman.

Ms. FAYE TURNEY (British Sailor): The treatment has been great, but we just want to get back, go home and see my family. I'm anxious to go home.

Lieutenant FELIX CARMAN (British Royal Navy): To Iranian people, I can understand why you were insulted by apparent intrusion to your waters. I'd like to say that no harm was meant to Iranian people or its territories whatsoever, under the hope that this experience will help to build the relationship between our countries.

GIFFORD: That was not the thought uppermost in the mind of British Prime Minister Tony Blair as he spoke to reporters upon the crew's arrival. Blair welcomed their safe return but made clear that the release of the captives did not wipe the slate clean between London and Tehran.

Blair said the death of four British soldiers, two of them women, killed with their interpreter in an ambush in Basra just hours before the Royal Navy crew arrived in London had tempered any sense of jubilation. And he didn't mince his words about what he believes is ongoing Iranian involvement in Iraq.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Britain): Now, it is far too early to say the particular terrorist act that's killed our forces was an act committed by terrorists who were backed by any elements of the Iranian regime. So I make no allegation in respect to that particular instant. But the general picture, as I said before, is that there are elements at least of the Iranian regime that are backing terrorism in Iraq.

GIFFORD: The members of the crew were taken by a helicopter to a military base in Southwest England, where they had an emotional reunion with their families. In a statement released several hours after they arrived, they said the past two weeks had been very difficult. But the statement read, by staying together as a team, they had kept their spirits up.

The BBC quoted one family member saying, "one of the team had been held in solitary confinement." The chief of defense staff, Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup met with the crew and said there was no question of any kind of reprimand for the confessions they'd made on Iranian television.

Air Chief Marshal JOCK STIRRUP (United Kingdom Chief of Defense Staff): They look very happy and they all look in good shape. But of course, we will get them the proper medical examination. Of course, they'll be properly debriefed. As far as the statements that they had to make on Iranian television, you've already got a look at them.

You've already listened to what they say as to be able to draw your own conclusions. They did exactly as they should have done from start to finish in this entire incident and we're extremely proud of them.

GIFFORD: After the captives' departure, Iran said the group had been released because Prime Minister Blair had sent a personal note of apology, a statement categorically denied by Blair's office. And the prime minister continued to insist that the sailors and marines were released, as he put it, without any deal, without any negotiation, without any side agreement of any nature.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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Britons' Release Spurs Hopes for Talks with Iran

Some of the 15 captured Royal Navy personnel walk across a runway at London's Heathrow airport.

Several of the captured Royal Navy personnel walk across a runway at London's Heathrow airport, April 5, 2007. Their release, after being held by Iran for 13 days, was seen as a sign of Iranian flexibility by some analysts. Bruno Vincent/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bruno Vincent/Getty Images

Fifteen British sailors — released by Iran as a "gift to the British people" — returned home safely Thursday. They arrived at London's Heathrow airport, smiled briefly for the cameras, and then were whisked by helicopter to an airbase, where they were reunited with their families.

The happy reunion ends a nearly two-week ordeal for the 15 sailors and marines — 14 men and one woman. Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup met with the crew briefly and described them as being "happy and in good shape."

At least one British tabloid, however, criticized the Royal Navy crew members for appearing in videos on Iranian State Television in which they "confessed" to trespassing into Iran's territorial waters. In an editorial, The Sun newspaper said: "The sight of the illegally detained British forces thanking Iranian tyrants for their freedom will sicken the nation."

Britain maintains that the sailors were searching for smugglers in Iraqi, not Iranian waters when they were seized by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

The crisis is over, but the analysis has only begun. From the beginning, it was clear that the incident was about much more than 15 sailors. It was about Iran's relationship with the West. It was about how the West responds to Iranian provocations. And in this case, at least, it was about how diplomacy prevailed.

It's not clear what exactly led to the unexpected breakthrough, but the release of the 15 sailors and marines came one day after a senior adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke directly with an Iranian negotiator and reaffirmed Britain's wish for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. On that same day, the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, also discussed the sailors' fate with an Iranian official.

Like all good diplomatic solutions, both sides can claim victory. Iran can claim it protected the integrity of its territorial waters and stood up to the West. Britain can claim that persistent diplomatic pressure on Iran ultimately won the sailors' release and diffused an international crisis. Blair insisted that no deal was made to secure the sailors' release.

Their release came as a surprise. Some analysts expected Iran to detain the crew for much longer, making Blair twist in the diplomatic winds during his final months in office, just as Iran did to former U.S. President Jimmy Carter following the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.

One reading of the outcome is that Iran is, after all, sensitive to international public opinion. Much of the world condemned Iran for seizing the Royal Navy crew, and several nations in the region reportedly pleaded with Iran to release them.

Iran, for its part, managed to dominate international television news with pictures of the detainees "confessing" and then, perhaps sensing when it had milked the crisis for all it was worth, releasing the sailors "like a card player flinging down his hand to scoop the pool," as one BBC correspondent put it.

Britain's relief at the release of the 15 crew members was tempered by news that four British soldiers and a translator were slain in an ambush in southern Iraq. That attack happened just hours before the freed crew touched down in London.

The United States accuses Iran of funneling arms and money to Shiite militias in Iraq. It's an accusation that Blair echoed Thursday, even as the 15 sailors were arriving back on British soil.

"The general picture, as I have said before, is there are elements — at least of the Iranian regime — that are backing, financing, arming terrorism in Iraq," Blair said.

One big question remains unanswered: Does the diplomatic solution to this crisis hold out hopes that compromise is possible over Iran's nuclear program? Not necessarily, analysts say. The stakes are much higher with the nuclear program—and, if anything, the capture of the sailors shows that Iran is willing to confront the West, not only diplomatically but also militarily.

One encouraging sign, however, is that the release of the sailors may have been facilitated by the intervention of Ali Larijani. He is considered a pragmatist in the Iranian regime. He is also Iran's chief nuclear negotiator.

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