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Blair to Iran: Release sailors or else...

London, March 27 (AP): Britain hopes that diplomacy will win the release of 15 sailors and Marines detained by Iran but is prepared to move to a “different phase” if negotiations fail, Prime Minister Tony Blair said today.

Britain has said the royal navy crew were seized on Friday just after they completed a search of an Indian-flagged commercial ship in the Iraqi part of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, where the border with Iran is disputed.

The British sailors had boarded ship when they were seized Friday by Iranian naval forces.

“It was an Indian-flagged vessel. It was suspected of being involved in automobile smuggling (into Iraq),” said Commander Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the US Fifth Fleet, speaking in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain.

Aandahl said the captain of the Indian ship had provided a statement that his vessel was in Iraqi waters at the time it was stopped by the British.

He said US officials knew the GPS coordinates of the ship at the time the incident occurred, but would not release them publicly.

In an interview with GMTV, Blair said: “I hope we manage to get them (the Iranian government) to realise they have to release them.

“If not, then this will move into a different phase.”

Asked what that meant, Blair said: “Well, we will just have to see, but what they should understand is that we cannot have a situation where our servicemen and women are seized when actually they are in Iraqi waters under a UN mandate, patrolling perfectly rightly and in accordance with that mandate, and then effectively captured and taken to Iran.”

Blair’s official spokesman said later the Prime Minister was not hinting either at the possible expulsion of Iranian diplomats or military action. But Blair’s office said officials may have to make public evidence proving the Britons were seized in Iraqi — not Iranian — waters, if there is no swift release of the sailors.

“We want to resolve this quickly without having a public confrontation with them, but as the Prime Minister said we want to resolve it. If we cannot resolve it quickly, then maybe we have to be more explicit,” said the spokesman. The spokesman said Britain had not made explicit its belief the sailors and Marines were in Iraqi territory.

He declined to say if Iran had been shown any proof, such as GPS coordinates.

Blair said his primary concern was the welfare of the royal navy personnel, which include Faye Turney, 26, the only woman among the crew.

“What we are trying to do at the moment is to pursue this through the diplomatic channels and make the Iranian government understand these people have to be released.”

Iran said today the 15 crew are healthy and are being treated well, and that Turney had been given privacy. “They are in completely good health. Rest assured that they have been treated with humanitarian and moral behaviour,” Mohammad Ali Hosseini, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said.

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