Tehran: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad freed 15 British sailors and marines on 4 April 2007, offering Britain a “gift” in a surprise announcement that ended a 13-day crisis which rattled world financial markets.
Ahmadinejad told a news conference broadcast round the world he was willing to forgive the sailors, seized in the Shatt al-Arab waterway on March 23, even though Britain was not “brave enough” to admit it had made a mistake and the men had strayed into Iranian territory.
“Under the influence of the Muslim Prophet (Iran) forgives these 15 people and gives their freedom to the British people as a gift,” Ahmadinejad said towards the end of the 90-minute news conference.
The announcement, made with a dramatic flourish by the Iranian president—who had twice cancelled news conferences in recent days—pushed oil prices down from recent highs. U.S. stock futures and the dollar rose on relief at the peaceful resolution to the crisis.
The dispute centred on where the Britons were when they were seized. Britain says they were in Iraqi waters on a routine U.N. mission. Tehran says they strayed into its territorial waters.
Ahmadinejad later met several of the sailors, who were dressed in smart suits, at his office in Tehran and shook hands with them before exchanging a few words through an interpreter.
“We are very grateful for your forgiveness,” one of the British sailors said to a smiling, joking Ahmadinejad, who appeared to relish the moment of political theatre. “I would like to thank yourself and the Iranian people.”
The captives were expected to be taken to the British embassy in Tehran and an Iranian official source said they would leave the Iranian capital by plane on 5 April.
“I ask Mr Blair not to punish the soldiers with the charge of accepting and telling the truth,” Ahmadinejad said in reference to taped “confessions” by the sailors and marines saying they had entered Iranian waters.
Britain welcomed Ahmadinejad’s statement and said it was seeking details of the “method and timing” of the release.
The White House said President George W. Bush also welcomed the statement. Current EU president Germany welcomed it too.
Nick Summers, the brother of Nathan Summers, one of the captives, was jubilant. “It is brilliant news. I am very happy with it,” he told Sky News.
Relatives of other captives also expressed their joy.
Before his announcement, Ahmadinejad awarded medals to the naval commanders who captured the sailors in the northern Gulf on March 23 and criticised Britain.
Iranian and British officials had negotiated over the past 48 hours to find a diplomatic solution to a crisis that had added to the tension over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme, the subject of U.N. Security Council sanctions.
Iran’s official news agency said British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s adviser Nigel Sheinwald had spoken directly to Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, on Tuesday night, breaking high-level diplomatic ice.
Ahmadinejad, under the spotlight of world attention, also said he was willing to consider re-establishing ties with the United States if that country “changed its behaviour”, but did not expand on his remark.
The United States said that if Iran wanted to change its relationship with Washington it would have to suspend uranium enrichment, part of its nuclear programme.