Britain puts pressure on Iran; female sailor may be freed

A photo dated 2000 of the only female captive, Faye Turney
A photo dated 2000 of the only female captive, Faye Turney
This file image shows HMS Cornwall on patrol in the Persian Gulf.
This file image shows HMS Cornwall on patrol in the Persian Gulf.

The one woman among a group of 15 British military personnel seized by Iran will be freed later Wednesday or Thursday, Iran's foreign minister has told CNN.

The woman, identified as sailor Faye Turney, was seized last Friday by Iran along with 14 other British Royal Navy sailors and marines who were conducting a routine inspection of a merchant vessel at the northern end of the Persian Gulf.

No other details were given about her possible release. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki's comments came Wednesday as he attended the Arab League Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Earlier Wednesday Britain increased pressure on Iran, releasing evidence it said showed the group was operating in Iraqi waters and freezing bilateral contacts until the crisis is resolved. Iran insists the group was inside its territorial waters.

"We are now in a new phase of diplomatic activity," British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told members of parliament.

"We need to focus all our bilateral efforts during this phase to resolution of this issue," she added. "We will therefore be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran until this situation is resolved."

The freeze means all official inward and outward visits will be stopped, visas to Iranian officials will not be issued, British support for other events such as trade missions to Iran is put on hold and government-to-government business on other issues will cease, the UK foreign office told The Associated Press.

Beckett also said the Iranian government was still refusing to give British officials information on exactly where the Britons were being held and was denying consular access to them.

A statement released by the Iranian Embassy in London Wednesday said that all the British Navy personnel were in good condition.

"We understand the anxiety of their families, but they must be assured that they are in safe hands and have a better life than the risky mission in the Persian Gulf waters," the statement said.

Iranian officials said they would allow British diplomats to see the detainees once an investigation into the matter is completed, according to a statement from Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Seyyed Mohammadali Hosseini.

The Iranian embassy statement said that the two governments were capable of resolving the issue through close contact and cooperation.

"We believe this is purely a technical and legal issue and is not related to any other issue," the statement said.

Earlier, the British Ministry of Defense gave what it said was proof that the British ship carrying the sailors and marines never strayed into Iranian waters.

British Vice Adm. Charles Style said that the global positioning system on the ship proved the vessel was "clearly" 3.1 kilometers (1.7 nautical miles) inside Iraqi waters and that the 14 men and 1 woman who were inspecting a merchant ship were "ambushed" by the Iranian forces.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was an "incontrovertible fact" that the "seizure" of British personnel in the Persian Gulf was "utterly without foundation."

The British sailors and marines were aboard frigate HMS Cornwall during a patrol to prevent smuggling, according to Britain's Ministry of Defense.

They were captured March 23 by members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards while conducting what Britain called a routine inspection of a merchant vessel near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, at the northern end of the Persian Gulf.

"These personnel were patrolling in Iraqi waters under a United Nations mandate," Blair said during a House of Commons session Wednesday.

Blair said his country is in contact with "everyone in Europe, NATO, the United Nations and the allies out in the Gulf region" to ratchet up pressure on the Iranian government.

'Hard to legitimate'

The United States, however, is deliberately remaining low key about the situation because the British goverment has asked it to do so, senior U.S. officials tell CNN.

The officials said the British had asked the U.S. not to make harsh statements about the incident that would set up the incident as a U.S. versus Iran issue.

"They have asked us to keep the rhetoric down and not do anything that would jeopardize their efforts to get the sailors and marines released," one senior official said.

Iran insists the ship was inside its territorial waters and, according to Style, provided a map with coordinates on Saturday in attempts to prove the point.

Blair said those coordinates actually "turned out to confirm they were in Iraqi waters" and Iraq has supported that position.

Upon pointing that out Sunday through diplomatic contacts, Style said Iran then "provided a second set of coordinates" on Monday that were "in Iranian waters over two nautical miles" from the position shown by the HMS Cornwall and confirmed by the merchant vessel the British personnel boarded.

The "change of coordinates," Style said "is hard to legitimate."

The statement Wednesday from the Iranian embassy in London said the British personnel had made an incursion of 0.5 km (0.3 miles) into Iranian territorial waters.

Even if the ship had somehow strayed into Iranian waters, Beckett said, "under international law, warships have sovereign immunity in the territorial sea of other states."

"The very most Iran would've been entitled to do if they considered our boats were breeching the rules on innocent passage would've been to require the ship to leave their territorial waters immediately," the foreign secretary explained.

On Monday, hard-liners in Iran urged the government to charge the Britons with espionage and put them on trial.

Blair called for their immediate release on Wednesday and added that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would speak later in the day on behalf of the European Union to pressure Iran to release the detainees.

Blair said he had been in talks with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said Wednesday Iran may allow Turkish diplomats access to the 15 Britons, according to CNN Turk.

Erdogan is attending a meeting of the Arab League in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

"Expect development anytime soon," Erdogan said after meeting with Iran's foreign minister.

Source: CNN Newsource