TEHRAN, 22 June 2004 — Iran seized three British naval patrol boats and detained eight sailors yesterday after they entered the country’s territorial waters on the Iraqi border, officials said.
“This morning, three British boats with eight people on board entered Iranian territorial waters. The Iranian Navy, in accordance with their duties, seized these boats and arrested the crew,” spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said in a statement.
“They are currently being interrogated and an investigation is under way,” he added.
Official sources said the small patrol boats were armed with heavy machine guns, and identified the detained Britons as “Royal Navy commandos”.
“I don’t know when they are going to be released,” Asefi later told AFP. “We have to clear up this matter. We are in contact with the British Embassy.”
A British military spokesman in neighboring Iraq confirmed that “three small Royal Navy patrol boats and eight crew have been out of communication since the early hours of this morning”.
“Their last known indication was to be in the Shatt Al-Arab area which is not unusual,” said the spokesman.
Playing it down as a “low-level incident”, a Royal Navy spokesman at the Defense Ministry in London said the three small boats appeared to have “strayed into Iranian territory”.
“These boats are used for training Iraqi river patrol service... what we would call river police,” said the spokesman, who was unable to specify if any Iraqis were on board.
“The waterway runs over a mile (1.6 km) wide. The border runs pretty much down the middle of it... Maybe, it was disputed whose side” of the border the vessels were on, he said. The British Embassy in Tehran said it was in touch with Iranian officials.
Iranian state television’s Arabic-language channel, Al-Alam, said Iranian forces had also seized GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) devices, assault rifles, pistols, cameras and detailed maps of the Iran-Iraq border area.
The crew members were detained shortly before midday and had “confessed that they had made a mistake”, Al-Alam said, adding it would show television footage of the British detainees later.
British armed forces control a large area of southern Iraq around the city of Basra, and along with Iraqi security forces patrol parts of the Shatt Al-Arab, mostly to combat smugglers and militants seeking to infiltrate Iraq and join the fighting against the US-led coalition.
Contacts with Iranian troops along that border area have generally been described by British sources as cordial, and yesterday’s incident is the most serious in the sensitive area since last year’s US-led invasion of Iraq. The Shatt Al-Arab border demarcation has been a constant source of dispute — and of conflict during the 1980-1988 war between Iran and Iraq — under Saddam Hussein, until a deal was struck for the frontier to run at the mid-way point.
Britain was the cosponsor of a resolution passed by the International Atomic Energy Agency last Friday that heavily criticized Iran for failing to fully cooperate with an investigation into its suspect nuclear program.