Iran Should Release British Sailors Unconditionally, U.S. Says

By Stephen Kaufman
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington - The Bush administration is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the 15 British sailors captured by Iran March 23 and says the sailors had been engaged in lawful activities in Iraqi territorial waters at the time they were seized.

“We want to see it [the situation] resolved peacefully and we want to see it resolved by the Iranians doing the right thing, which is letting these guys go,” State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters March 28.

He said the international response to Iran’s action has been “pretty universal,” with “great international consensus” that Iran needs to release the captured sailors.

Iran has charged that the eight British naval sailors and seven marines on the HMS Cornwall were within its territorial waters and said Iranian Revolutionary Guards took them into custody at gunpoint after they completed a search of a merchant ship.

However, British authorities presented evidence earlier March 28 that the HMS Cornwall was 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraq’s territorial waters at the time of the seizure.

Casey said “the combined wisdom of the multinational forces in Iraq” supports the British position of the ship’s location at the time of this incident.

“[T]hese sailors were picked up by the Iranians in Iraqi territorial waters and … operating legally under international law, under U.N. mandate,” he said.

He added that the United States is contacting other countries and encouraging them to speak out on the situation, as well as to “use whatever influence they have with the Iranians” to effect the sailors’ release.

“[W]e stand by our British allies and certainly we want to do whatever we can to assist them,” Casey said.

White House deputy spokesperson Dana Perino said President Bush spoke with British Prime Minister Tony Blair via scheduled secure videoconference earlier in the day on several topics, including the detained sailors.

“The president fully backs Tony Blair and our allies in Britain,” Perino said.

Asked later about current U.S. naval exercises in the Gulf, Casey said there was no connection between them and the situation with the British sailors, and that they “certainly pose a threat to no nation, including Iran.”

“[T]he president announced back in January that he was sending this carrier group to the Gulf, that he was doing so in order for us to be able to continue our long-standing efforts at … ensuring security and stability in the region,” he said.

Casey also said the proposed ministerial level conference on Iraq’s future, which would include representatives from Iran and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, remains unscheduled, but “the intention and the understanding is that that meeting will take place.”

He added that the Bush administration hopes the British sailors “would be released before such an event took place.”

A senior State Department official said the goal is to hold the conference sometime in April, perhaps in Istanbul, Turkey, but said it likely would not take place before April 8.