UK Sailors 'Were In Iraqi Waters'

The 15 British military personnel captured by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf were subjected to psychological pressure and kept in isolation during their detention, the group's commander told a news conference on Friday.

Lt. Felix Carman of the British Royal Navy, reading a statement at a news conference at a military base in Chivenor, southwestern England, said the troops were 1.7 nautical miles from Iranian waters when the incident occurred -- despite previous statements to the contrary while in Iranian custody.

The group had been presented with two options, said Lt. Carman: to admit having strayed into Iranian waters or face up to seven years in prison in Iran.

The sailors and marines, who were seized from patrol boats on March 23, returned to the UK on Thursday after 13 days in Iranian captivity. Lt. Carman said they were kept in isolation and blindfolded until the last few nights, when they were brought into the glare of the Iranian media.

Britain has suspended boarding operations in the Persian Gulf and launched a review into the circumstances that led to the 15's capture and detention, defense sources confirmed on Friday.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence said a "detailed inquiry" was under way and that debriefings of the group would continue, the UK's Press Association reported.

Meanwhile, the head of the Royal Navy, First Sea Lord Jonathon Band, confirmed boarding operations involving British forces had been suspended.

"For the moment we have stopped UK boarding operations," Band told BBC radio. "We will obviously do a complete review."

Band said the review of the incident would consider intelligence, equipment and procedures as well as examining the rules of engagement for British forces operating in the area.

He also defended the conduct of the 15, several of whom appeared on Iranian state television during their captivity to apologize for their actions and were also filmed meeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and receiving gifts prior to their return to the UK. Ahmadinejad announced on Wednesday that the group had been "pardoned" as an Easter gift to the British people.

Band said the "confessions" by the group appeared to have been made under "a certain amount of psychological pressure."

"From what I have seen of them on the television and I met them personally when they returned to their families yesterday, I think they acted with considerable dignity and a lot of courage," Band said.

He also rejected suggestions that the patrol had been "spying" and said there was "absolutely no doubt" they were in Iraqi waters.

"We are certainly not spying on them," he said. "The Iranians in that part of Iraqi territorial waters are not part of the scene."

In an interview with British TV network Sky News, released on Thursday but conducted before the group's capture, the captain of the 15 said gathering intelligence on Iranian naval activity was a standard part of their duties.

Capt. Chris Air said patrols regularly encountered fishing boats in the area and talked to their crews about guarding against terrorism and piracy.

"Secondly, it's to gather int [intelligence]. If they do have any information, because they're here for days at a time, they can share it with us, whether it's about piracy or any sort of Iranian activity in the area," Air told Sky News.

"Obviously we're right by the buffer zone with Iran," Air added.

Sky News said on its Web site that it withheld the story until after the sailors' release to avoid giving the Iranians evidence for prosecuting the captives.

In a statement published by the Ministry of Defence's Web site on Thursday, the group said they were "extremely happy" to be back home.

"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 to the UK," the statement said.

No deals

Speaking in Downing Street as the British Airways flight carrying the 15 landed in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed their release but reiterated that no diplomatic deals had been done to secure their release.

Blair said the group's homecoming was a reason to "rejoice" but noted that their arrival back to the UK came amid news of the deaths of four British soldiers in Iraq.

"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," he said.

Blair said the group's sudden release vindicated the UK's "dual-track strategy" of pursuing bilateral dialogue while mobilizing international pressure, adding that their return had been secured "without any deal, without any negotiation, without any side agreement of any nature whatsoever."

He said the crisis had opened up new channels of communication with Tehran that it would be "sensible" to pursue, and he said it was the "right moment" to reflect on relations with Iran.

"But there cannot be any misunderstanding of the basis upon which that communication takes place," said Blair. "We have to hold absolutely firm in relation to support from any aspect of the Iranian regime for terrorism."

Responding to the claim by Ahmadinejad that the UK had sent a letter of apology to Tehran vowing not to intrude into Iranian territorial waters, Blair noted that the allegation was "nothing new" since British forces should not have been in Iranian waters, adding "obviously it's our contention that they weren't," in reference to the 15 marines and sailors.

Blair also dismissed suggestions that any deal had been made involving the release of Iranians held in Iraq.

"Let me make it absolutely clear: No, there are no agreements about any Iranian elements that may be held in Iraq because they're being held in Iraq as a result of the wrongful interference with the business in Iraq," Blair said.

Story courtesy of CNN Newsource.