Iran released on Wednesday five British sailors who were detained last week when their 60-foot racing yacht drifted accidentally into Iran’s Persian Gulf waters and was seized.
The elite Revolutionary Guard, whose navy had stopped the vessel, interrogated the yachtsmen and found that their “illegal entry” into Iranian waters had been a mistake, the official IRNA news agency said.
The release is an overture to London, which has been trying to keep the incident from getting tangled up in politics -- not only in the rancour between Tehran and the West over Iran’s nuclear issue but also the country’s own internal postelection turmoil, which has pumped up the leadership’s fears of foreign plots.
IRNA’s report said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Iranian Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki discussed the matter late Tuesday.
Miliband told reporters in London earlier Tuesday that there was “certainly no question of any malicious intent on the part of these five young people.”
“This is a human story ... It’s got nothing to do with politics, it’s got nothing to do with the nuclear enrichment program,” Miliband said. “We are keen this be resolved as soon as possible.”
The British were released in the early hours Wednesday, but IRNA didn’t say where they were freed or if they had been handed over to British representatives. It wasn’t clear if the yacht was also let go.
The vessel was on its way from Bahrain to Dubai last Wednesday for the start of its first off—shore race when it had a problem with its propeller, according to Andrew Pindar, whose Team Pindar owns the yacht. It drifted into Iranian waters and was seized by the Revolutionary Guard near the Iranian island of Sirri, which lies near the mouth of the narrow Hormuz Strait off Dubai.
The seizure of the yacht, called Kingdom of Bahrain, was also a snub to that Arab nation, which has long had a tense relationship with its larger neighbour across the Gulf. Bahrain’s government also contacted the Iranians to say the entry was a mistake and push for the crew’s release.
Team Pindar, an independent British-based yachting team, runs the yacht under the Sail Bahrain initiative, in which the kingdom is a partner. The yacht had been heading to join the 580-kilometer (360-mile) Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race, which was to begin Nov. 26. The race went ahead without the yacht.
Iran had warned on Tuesday the sailors would be prosecuted if it was proven they had “bad intentions” when they entered Iranian waters.
“After carrying out an investigation and interrogation of the five British sailors, it became clear that their illegal entry was a mistake,” a statement by the Revolutionary Guard said. “After obtaining necessary guarantees, it was decided to release them.”
British media had identified the five Britons as Oliver Smith, of Southampton; Sam Usher, of Scarborough; Luke Porter, of Weston-super-Mare; Oliver Young, of Saltash; and David Bloomer, who is from Malahide, Ireland but holds a British passport.
Porter’s family said he was able to call them early Thursday shortly after his capture. His father, Charles, said Porter told him “he was fine” but couldn’t answer many questions, including where he was being held.
Tensions over Iran’s nuclear and domestic controversies have already snarled attempts to free three Americans arrested by Iran this summer after they strayed across the border from Iraq. Washington and their families say the three unintentionally crossed into Iran while hiking, but Tehran -- after investigating them for months -- recently accused them of espionage.
There had also been signs the yachtsmen’s situation could get politicized, Iran’s state news agency IRNA said hard—line students plan to protest at Britain’s embassy in Tehran on Wednesday against “the illegal trespassing.”
It was not clear if the rally would go ahead following the release of the British.
But in an interview with Iranian TV on Tuesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made no mention of the yachtsmen. He, however, singled out Britain for criticism, saying it and Israel were behind a tough resolution by the U.N. nuclear watchdog rebuking Iran over its nuclear program.
In 2007, Iran seized 15 British military personnel in the Gulf, claiming they had entered Iranian waters, though Britain insisted they were in Iraqi waters. Eventually all were freed without an apology from Britain.