LONDON: Britain on 28 March froze official contacts with Iran as a dispute over 15 detained sailors intensified, with Prime Minister Tony Blair vowing to “ratchet up” pressure on the Islamic state.
Britain unveiled evidence it said showed the sailors and marines were in Iraqi waters when detained on 23 March. Iran rejected this but reportedly said the only woman among the captives could soon be released.
In other fast-moving developments, Turkey said its diplomats might be allowed to see the British navy personnel who are being kept at a secret location despite international calls for Iran to free them.
Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett - who cut short a trip to Turkey to deal with the mounting crisis - announced the sanction in a statement to the British parliament.
“We need to focus all our bilateral efforts during this phase on the resolution of this issue,” she said. “We will therefore be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran.”
A few minutes earlier, Blair emphasised British determination in the dispute.
“It is now time to ratchet up the diplomatic and international pressure” on Tehran, Blair told lawmakers, adding that “there was no justification whatever” for the detention of the Britons.
“It was completely unacceptable, wrong and illegal,” he said.
The prime minister said Britain was in contact with “all our key allies” over the dispute and to “step up the pressure” on the Iranian government to release the captured Britons.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the only woman among the detained Britons, Faye Turney, would be released on 28 March or on 29 March, the Turkish news channel CNN-Turk reported from an Arab summit in Riyadh.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan meanwhile said diplomats from his country may be granted access to the British military personnel, after he held talks with the Iranian foreign minister.
Britain could not immediately confirm this. “For the moment, the point is that we want access to them,” said a Foreign Office spokesman, urging that the claim be treated with “caution.”
Britain and Iran remained entrenched in their differing accounts of where the navy personnel were seized.
British military chiefs used maps and GPS coordinates to affirm that the navy personnel were 1.7 nautical miles (3.15 kilometres) within Iraqi waters at the northern end of the Gulf. It gave the coordinates as 29 degrees 50.36 minutes north and 48 degrees 43.08 minutes east.
The Iranian embassy in London insisted that the British personnel had “illegally entered” up to 0.5 kilometers within Iranian territorial waters, Sky News television reported.
“This was a violation of (an) international border ... an intrusive act justified their detention,” the statement said.
Offering a grain of hope, it however said it was “confident the two governments are capable of resolving this security case through their close contacts and cooperation.”
London argues that the eight sailors and seven marines were conducting “routine” anti-smuggling operations when they were seized at gunpoint.
But there has been speculation that Tehran could use the British personnel as pawns, either to trade for five Iranians being held by US forces in Iraq or for concessions over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
Beckett said Iran had denied any such link.
Tehran has “assured (London) that there is no linkage between this issue and other issues - bilateral, regional or international - which of course I welcome,” she said.
Citing unnamed sources, the BBC has said the British military personnel were being grilled at a Revolutionary Guards base in Tehran to find out if they were on an intelligence-gathering mission.
The European Union has demanded the sailors’ release and the United States has expressed its “concern and outrage.”
The United States said that an unusual exercise involving two US aircraft carrier strike groups in the Gulf is aimed at reassuring friends and allies, not raising tensions with Iran.
British Home Secretary John Reid, a former defence secretary, said the situation was delicate and “very dangerous.”
“Let’s just hope we get a speedy and a satisfactory resolution to this,” Reid told Sky News television.