Basra, March 23 (Reuters): Iranian forces seized 15 British royal navy personnel who had searched a merchant ship today, Britain said, triggering a diplomatic crisis at a time of heightened tensions over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Britain said the incident took place in Iraqi waters, where it routinely boards merchant vessels with UN permission to search them. The foreign office summoned Iran’s ambassador and demanded the immediate, safe release of the personnel.
The incident took place a day after Iran launched a week of naval war games along its coast, including the narrow northern reaches of the Gulf which control access to the vast oil reserves of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait. The UN Security Council is expected to vote tomorrow on a resolution to impose new sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment.
Oil prices rose by about a per cent to above $62 a barrel after the incident. “This morning 15 British naval personnel, engaged in routine boarding operations of merchant shipping in Iraqi territorial waters ... were seized by Iranian naval vessels,” Britain’s defence ministry said.
“The boarding party had completed a successful inspection of a merchant ship when they and their two boats were surrounded and escorted by Iranian vessels into Iranian territorial waters,” it said.
Iranian officials could not be reached for comment.
“Hopefully there has been a mistake that has been made and we will see early clarification and an early release of my people,” Commodore Nick Lambert, commander of the British fleet in the area, said. “There was no fighting, no engagement of weapons, anything like that, it was entirely peaceful. We have been assured from the scant communication we have had with the Iranians at a tactical level that the 15 people are safely in their hands.”