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Britons were gathering intelligence on Iranians: Detainee

BRITAIN: The British sailors seized by Iran in the Gulf were gathering intelligence on Iranian activities as part of their routine operations, one of them said in an interview before their capture but only broadcast Thursday.

“We sort of gather int (intelligence) as well,” Royal Marine Captain Chris Air, 25 told Sky News television in the interview filmed three weeks ago but only broadcast after their release to avoid jeapordizing efforts to free them.

The seven marines and eight sailors flew home Thursday after their 13-day ordeal, which began when they were seized in the northern Gulf on March 23, while carrying out what London said was “routine” anti-smuggling operations.

The British channel was with many of those captured as they carried out patrols in the northern Gulf, under a United Nations mandate to protect Iraq’s territorial waters. On an Iraqi fishing vessel, during a routine boarding, Air said they gathered intelligence from such boats.

“If they do have any information because they’re here for days at a time they can share with us, whether it’s about any piracy or any sort of Iranian activity in the area, because obviously we’re right near the buffer zone with Iran,” he said.

Air also disclosed that the captain of the fishing vessel he was on said the Iranian military was illegally boarding Iraqi boats.

“This dhow had been robbed by some Iranian, some soldiers about three days ago. They had some money taken off them and apparently it’s happened quite a lot of times in the past so its good to gather int as well on the Iranians,” he said.

Britain’s Defence Secretary Des Browne said that the crew from HMS Cornwall were right to find out all they could about what was going on in the area.

“The UN mandate would clearly empower the military who are part of the task force to gather information about the environment in which they were working,” he told Sky News.

“It’s important to have that information because that information then informs the way in which we keep our people secure as they work in it.”

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the head of Britain’s armed forces, refused to be drawn.

“When we’re engaged in operations we don’t like everyone to know the details of what we’re doing and we never discuss operational details so I’m aware you get these snippets from time to time but you can’t expect me to talk about them,” he told Sky News.

Meanwhile none of the sailors and marines freed by Iran will be punished for making apologies to the Iranians, the Defense Ministry said, but authorities will study the procedures being followed by the Royal Navy team when it was captured.

The ministry said officials would examine the circumstances in which some of the 15 sailors and marines appeared in videos on Iranian state television offering regrets for entering Iran’s territorial waters, while Britain’s government has insisted they were in Iraqi waters.

The footage was met with disgust in Britain, where some blamed the Iranians but others harshly criticized the prisoners for caving in to pressure. Defense officials sought to quash the criticism of its personnel.

“They did exactly as they should have done from start to finish and we are proud of them,” said Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, the head of Britain’s armed forces and top military adviser.

Meanwhile former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said the hostage crisis between Britain and Iran ended in a “double victory” for Tehran.

“In a way I think the regime in Tehran has won a double victory,” said Bolton, interviewed on the US-funded Alhurra Arabic-language television network, about Iran’s capture of 15 British naval personnel.

“They won a victory when they captured the hostages and they won a victory when they released the hostages” on Wednesday, he said.

Earlier the United States welcomed Iran’s release of 15 British captives but warned Tehran of possible new sanctions if the Islamic republic does not freeze sensitive nuclear work.

But even as Washington tellingly praised London, not Tehran, for the end of the tense standoff over the detained sailors and marines, Iran flatly rejected UN demands to suspend uranium and reprocessing activities.

US President George W. Bush, on his Texas ranch for a long Easter weekend, spoke for about an hour by secure video with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, US national security council spokesman Gordon Johndroe told reporters.

“The president welcomed the safe return of the British personnel who had been detained in Iran. He also commended the British on their resolve in bringing the situation to a peaceful resolution,” said Johndroe.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack accused Iran of using “hostage-taking as a tool of its international diplomacy,” and confirmed that Washington had toned down its rhetoric throughout the standoff.

London, Washington, Friday, AFP, AP

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