/ 23 March 2007

Iran seizes 15 British Navy personnel

Iranian forces seized 15 British Royal Navy personnel who had searched a merchant ship on Friday, Britain said, triggering a diplomatic crisis.

Britain said the incident took place in Iraqi waters, where it routinely boards merchant vessels with United Nations permission to search them. The UK Foreign Office summoned Iran’s ambassador and demanded the immediate, safe release of the personnel.

”At approximately 10.30am Iraqi time this morning [Friday], 15 British naval personnel, engaged in routine boarding operations of merchant shipping in Iraqi territorial waters … were seized by Iranian naval vessels,” the ministry said.

”The boarding party had completed a successful inspection of a merchant ship when they and their two boats were surrounded and escorted by Iranian vessels into Iranian territorial waters,” it said in a statement.

”We are urgently pursuing this matter with the Iranian authorities at the highest level, and on the instructions of the foreign secretary the Iranian ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office. The British government is demanding the immediate and safe return of our people and equipment.”

Oil prices rose above $62 a barrel after the incident.

Royal Navy personnel include sailors and marines, who typically make up boarding parties for ship searches.

Washington said no US military personnel were involved.

Iranian officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The embassy in London was closed for a holiday.

The incident was similar to one in 2004 in which eight British servicemen spent three nights in the hands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards before being released unharmed.

In that incident, the Iranians accused them of crossing into Iranian waters, which Britain disputed.

Earlier, an Iraqi fisherman in Basra told Reuters he had seen the incident in the Shatt al-Arab waterway that marks the southern stretch of Iraq’s border with Iran.

The fisherman, who asked not be named, said six or seven foreign military personnel were on two small boats that stopped to check Iranian ships in the Siban area of the waterway, near the al-Faw peninsula that leads into the northern Gulf.

When they boarded one ship, at least two Iranian vessels appeared on the scene and the military personnel were detained. There was no sign of any violent confrontation he said.

He said the merchant ships had stopped in a narrow area of the waterway where smaller boats normally pull alongside to take on board goods. — Reuters