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Archive for Friday, April 6, 2007

British sailors, marines return home

April 6, 2007

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— Fifteen Royal Navy crew members freed from Iran enjoyed their first night on English soil Thursday. Amid the relief, champagne and tearful embraces, however, some Britons raised questions about the sailors' conduct and their apparent confessions in captivity.

While much of the country rallied behind the crew's return, others criticized them for offering apologies where none was required - namely for appearing in videos in which they admitted and offered regrets for entering Iranian waters.

Defense officials sought to quash the criticism and said that none of the sailors and marines will be punished for making the apologies.

Prime Minister Tony Blair was somber. He said that while the country celebrated the safe return - and praised the diplomacy that secured their release - the joy was diminished by the killing of four British soldiers Thursday in Iraq.

Iran's release of the eight sailors and seven marines raised hopes among some that Tehran might be open to compromise on other matters, particularly Western demands for a halt to Iran's uranium enrichment program.

But Iran already was warning it would retaliate if the West pushed too hard, and U.S. officials intensified their criticism of Tehran after restraining their comments during the 13-day standoff over the British naval crew.

Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Washington saw no sign of Iranian willingness to work with other nations on scaling back its nuclear program, which the U.S. and its allies suspect is aimed at producing atomic weapons.

"What would show that they're more in line with the international community is to comply with the U.N. Security Council resolution" calling for a freeze in the Iranian nuclear program, he said.

The freed crew left Iran on Thursday morning, traveling in business class on a British Airways jetliner with staff from the British Embassy in Tehran. Flight attendants passed around champagne as a Royal Navy officer reminded the former prisoners they were on duty.

Filing off the plane at London's Heathrow Airport after a 6 1/2-hour flight, the team members carried blue and orange duffel bags and shopping bags, some apparently holding candy and souvenir gifts from Iranians.

Then two Sea King helicopters ferried the crew 210 miles to the Royal Marine base at Chivenor for a reunion with families. As they hugged relatives, TV cameras caught Leading Seaman Faye Turney - the only woman among the captives - wiping tears from the corner of her eye.

The crew was expected to remain at the base at least until today for debriefing about their seizure by Iran, which charged the naval team intruded into its waters in two inflatable boats. Britain insisted the crew was searching for smuggling on Iraq's side of the Shatt al-Arab, a disputed waterway dividing Iraq and Iran.

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