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Freed Britons back home

Chivenor (England), April 5 (Reuters): The 15 British military personnel freed by Iran after a two-week diplomatic stand-off were reunited with their families in Britain today amid questions about the incident and its implications.

The 14 men and one woman hugged and kissed tearful relatives at an air base in southwest England ahead of a debriefing session, after landing in London from Tehran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the surprise of the 15, their families and the British government, said yesterday he had decided to forgive and free the group, who were seized from their patrol boat in the northern Gulf on March 23.

Iran said they had strayed into its waters but Britain said they were in Iraqi waters on a regular UN mission.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed their safe return but said the death of four British soldiers in Iran’s neighbour Iraq earlier today had tempered any sense of jubilation.

“Just as we rejoice at the return of our 15 service personnel, so today we are also grieving and mourning for the loss of our soldiers in Basra who were killed as a result of a terrorist act,” he said as British Airways flight BA6634 from Tehran arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport at 1102 GMT.

Dressed in military uniforms, the 15 briefly posed for pictures before they were flown by helicopter to a base at Chivenor in Devon, 320 km southwest of London.

Footage released by the ministry of defence showed their emotional reunion with their relatives.

Blair denied London had done any deal with Tehran. He said the incident had opened up new channels of communication with Iran that it would be “sensible to pursue”.

Analysts said it was positive that Blair’s top foreign policy adviser Nigel Sheinwald had talked directly to Ali Larijani, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator. “Larijani is no moderate but he is a pragmatist and the hope has been that he would find a way to reach a face-saving deal on suspension (of uranium enrichment),” said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for Non-Proliferation at the Institute for Strategic Studies.

Other commentators said the incident would affect Britons’ view of Iran. “Your average Briton now will be much more aware that Iran is a potential threat, despite the way it ended,” said Dan Plesch, author and commentator on nuclear proliferation at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

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