Blair Warns Iran Standoff Could Escalate

DAVID STRINGER
AP
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Tuesday that his government could make public evidence that a British navy crew was in Iraqi waters when it was captured by Iran, saying he was prepared to take the standoff to a "different phase" if diplomacy fails to win their release.

Iran said the 15 British sailors and marines were being treated well, but refused to say where they were being held, or rule out the possibility that they could be brought to trial for allegedly entering Iranian waters.

"I hope we manage to get them to realize they have to release them," Blair said in an interview with GMTV. "If not, then this will move into a different phase."

Blair's spokesman said the prime minister was not hinting either at the possible expulsion of Iranian diplomats or military action, but that Britain may have to make public evidence proving the Britons were seized in Iraqi _ not Iranian _ waters, if there is no swift release of the sailors.

Releasing such evidence could have "an upside and a downside" because it could show the Iranian ships strayed into Iraqi territory and provoke a diplomatic row between the neighbors, the spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with policy.

Britain and the United States have said the sailors and marines were intercepted Friday after they completed a search of a civilian vessel in the Iraqi part of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, where the border between Iran and Iraq has been disputed for centuries.

There were fears in Britain that the fate of the 15 could get caught up in the political tensions between Iran and the West, including the dispute over Iran's nuclear program and accusations of Iranian help to Shiite militants in Iraq.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Navy began its largest demonstration of force in the Persian Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with warplanes from two aircraft carriers flying simulated attack maneuvers off the coast of Iran.

U.S. commanders insisted the exercises were not a direct response to the seizure of the British sailors and marines, but they also made clear that the flexing of the Navy's military might was intended as a warning to Iran.

Also Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett called Iran's foreign minister for the second time and demanded the Britons' swift release in "very robust terms", the Foreign Office said.

Blair's spokesman did not specify if Britain had set a deadline for the naval crew's release but said negotiations would not be "indefinite."

He also refused to say if satellite images or GPS coordinates had been shown to Iranian authorities and declined to reveal which territorial boundaries in the waterway Britain recognizes.

Iran has said it is questioning the British sailors and marines to determine if their alleged entry into Iranian waters was "intentional or unintentional" before deciding what to do with them _ a sign Tehran could be seeking a way out of the standoff.

The dispute helped drive up international oil prices Monday, but they fell Tuesday, reflecting hopes of a peaceful resolution.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said the case was following normal procedures, holding out the possibility that the Britons could be brought to trial.

He said the Britons were being treated well and that the only woman among the sailors, 26-year-old Faye Turney, had been given privacy.

"They are in completely good health. Rest assured that they have been treated with humanitarian and moral behavior," Hosseini The Associated Press.

In talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Beckett demanded that British diplomats be allowed to meet with the crew to make their own assessment.

Hosseini later told Iran's official news agency that the Britons would not be given consular access until Iran completes its inquiry.

U.S. officials said the crisis began when British sailors boarded an Indian-flagged commercial ship suspected of carrying smuggled cars.

The ship turned out not be smuggling goods and its captain provided a statement that his vessel was in Iraqi waters at the time it was stopped by the British, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl, the spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, told The Associated Press from fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain.

He said U.S. officials knew the GPS coordinates of the ship at the time of the incident, but would not release them publicly.

Some in Iran have called for the British crew to be held as leverage to gain the release of at least five Iranians detained by the U.S. military in Iraq for allegedly being part of a Revolutionary Guard force.

Blair said the two issues were not related.

"Any Iranian forces who are inside Iraq are breaching the U.N. mandate and undermining the democratically elected government of Iraq, so they have got no cause to be there at all," the prime minister said.

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