U.N. expresses 'grave concern' over Iran's seizure of Brits
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UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Security Council yesterday expressed "grave concern" over Iran's seizure of 15 British sailors and marines and called for an early resolution of the escalating dispute, but Iran's chief international negotiator suggested that the captives might be put on trial.
The council's statement wasn't as tough as Britain had hoped, though, and the divide seemed to deepen.
As the standoff drove world oil prices to new six-month highs, Turkey, NATO's only Muslim member, reportedly sought to calm tensions by urging Iran to let a Turkish diplomat meet with the detainees and to free the lone woman among the Britons.
Tensions had seemed to be cooling a day earlier, but after Iran offended leaders by airing a video of the prisoners and Britain touched a nerve in Tehran by seeking U.N. help, positions hardened even more yesterday.
Iran retreated from a pledge by Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki that the female sailor, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, would be released soon. Mr. Mottaki then repeated that the matter could be resolved if Britain admitted that its sailors mistakenly entered Iranian territorial waters last Friday.
Britain's Foreign Office insisted again that the sailors and marines were seized in an Iraqi-controlled area while searching merchant ships under a U.N. mandate and said no admission of error would be made.
With Britain taking its case to the United Nations, Ali Larijani, the top Iranian negotiator in all of his country's foreign dealings, went on Iranian state radio to issue a warning. He said that if Britain continued its current approach, "this case may face a legal path" -- a clear reference to Iran's prosecuting the sailors and marines in court. "British leaders have miscalculated this issue," he said.
Gen. Ali Reza Afshar, Iran's military chief, blamed the backtracking on releasing the British woman on "wrong behavior" by her government. "The release of a female British soldier has been suspended," the semiofficial Iranian news agency Mehr said.
The Security Council's statement was a watered-down version of a stronger draft sought by Britain to "deplore" Iranian actions and urge the immediate release of the prisoners, primarily because Russia and South Africa opposed putting blame on the Tehran regime, diplomats said. Russia also objected to the council's adopting Britain's position that its sailors were operating in Iraqi waters when they were captured, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
With agreement required from all 15 members for a statement's wording, the parties spent more than four hours in private talks before emerging with wording softer than had been sought by Britain, which is also known as the United Kingdom.
"Members of the Security Council expressed grave concern at the capture by the Revolutionary Guard and the continuing detention by the government of Iran of 15 United Kingdom naval personnel and appealed to the government of Iran to allow consular access in terms of the relevant international laws," the statement said. "Members of the Security Council support calls including by the secretary-general in his March 29 meeting with the Iranian foreign minister for an early resolution of this problem, including the release of the 15 U.K. personnel."
South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo said negotiations were needed to ensure that the statement focused on the agreed facts.
British Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry expressed satisfaction with the statement and said he hoped that it would send "the right message" to the Iranian government that it should provide immediate access to the prisoners and bring their prompt release.
Late last night, Britain's Foreign Office told the AP of contacts with Iran over the detained Britons.
"The Iranian government has sent a formal note to the British Embassy," a spokeswoman said.
The spokeswoman, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with Foreign Office policy, refused to provide any other details.
Earlier, Iranian state television reported what was believed to be Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first comment on the standoff, saying he accused Britain of using propaganda rather than trying to solve the matter quietly through diplomatic channels.
First Published March 30, 2007 12:00 am