Abducted sailors fit after grilling
Richard Beeston, London
March 28, 2007
IRAN said yesterday that 15 British naval personnel seized in the Gulf last week were "fit and well" but refused to divulge where they were held or when they might be freed.
For the second day running, Geoffrey Adams, the British ambassador to Tehran, appealed to officials at the Iranian Foreign Ministry for consular access to the eight sailors and seven marines - including one woman - who were abducted at gunpoint by Revolutionary Guards in the northern Gulf on Friday.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehzi Mostafavi said the captives were being interrogated to see whether they had crossed into Iranian waters deliberately.
"Iran has enough evidence to prove that the British forces personnel were detained in Iranian waters," he said. "It should become clear whether their entry was intentional or unintentional ... After that is clarified, the necessary decision will be made."
British diplomats across the world have been instructed to lobby third parties to put pressure on Iran to free the captives.
British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett was expected to call on Turkey to help during a visit to Ankara, which enjoys close ties with Tehran.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari yesterday raised the issue with Manouchehr Mottaki, his Iranian counterpart, in a meeting in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
Although the Iranians have assured Britain that the 15 are unharmed, there are fears they could be subjected to the same abuse suffered by eight British sailors and marines held in similar circumstances three years ago.
A former marine recalled yesterday the harsh treatment he suffered when held captive for three days in 2004.
Asked to detail the conditions endured by the six marines and two navy men seized in 2004, Scott Fallon told BBC radio: "Mock executions, really. We were put in a ditch and there were Iranians on top with AK-47s, cocking weapons."
Another captive in 2004 described his fear at a mock execution. Navy reservist Chris Adams said: "We were told to stand and put our hands on our head. We were standing in the desert. We were told to turn to the left and put our left hand on the shoulder of the person next to you. We walked slowly down a hill into a ditch.
"I thought, 'This is a grave. This is it.' They were filming it with TV cameras, some sort of propaganda video or something."
It is thought that when US forces burst into a villa and arrested five Iranian men in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil this year, they may have set in motion a chain of events that led to the abduction of the Britons.
While the British and Iranian governments argue about whether the sailors and marines were in Iraqi or Iranian waters, privately there is acknowledgement that their fate is bound to that of the Iranian captives.
As part of a campaign to crack down on Iranian influence in Iraq, President George W.Bush ordered US forces to root out Iranian agents arming and funding Iraqi Shia militias.
The Iranian liaison office in the Iraqi Kurdish region was an obvious choice. When US troops stormed the building they found Iranians trying to flush fake documents down a toilet.
All five were allegedly members of the al-Quds unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The unit is responsible for promoting the Iranian revolution abroad by assisting militant groups with funding, training and arms.
Iranian officials began to speculate openly that the way to free their comrades was to capture US or British soldiers and arrange a prisoner swap.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad served with the Pasdaran, as the Revolutionary Guards are known in Iran, during the Iran-Iraq War. The unit reports directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, controls large business interests and is heavily involved in politics.
Last month, its prestige was challenged by reports that General Ali Resa Asgarihad disappeared in Turkey and defected to the US. Iran insisted he was kidnapped, but reports have since surfaced of officers disappearing.