Britain hopes that diplomacy will win the release of 15 sailors and marines detained by Iran but is prepared to move to a "different phase" if negotiations fail, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday.
Britain has said the Royal Navy crew were seized Friday just after they completed a search of a civilian vessel in the Iraqi part of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, where the border with Iran is disputed.
"I hope we manage to get them (the Iranian government) to realize they have to release them," Blair said in an interview with GMTV. "If not, then this will move into a different phase."
Asked what that meant, Blair said: "Well, we will just have to see, but what they should understand is that we cannot have a situation where our servicemen and women are seized when actually they are in Iraqi waters under a U.N. mandate, patrolling perfectly rightly and in accordance with that mandate, and then effectively captured and taken to Iran."
Blair's official spokesman said later the prime minister was not hinting either at the possible expulsion of Iranian diplomats or military action. But Blair's office warned officials may be forced to make public evidence proving the Britons were seized in Iraqi - not Iranian - waters, if there is no swift release of the sailors.
"We want to resolve this quickly without having a public confrontation with them, but as the prime minister said we want to resolve it. If we cannot resolve it quickly, then maybe we have to be more explicit," said the spokesman, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity.
Blair said his primary concern was the welfare of the Royal Navy personnel, which include Faye Turney, 26, the only woman among the crew.
"What we are trying to do at the moment is to pursue this through the diplomatic channels and make the Iranian government understand these people have to be released and that there is absolutely no justification whatever for holding them."
Iran said Tuesday the 15 crew are healthy and are being treated well, and that Turney had been given privacy.
"They are in completely good health. Rest assured that they have been treated with humanitarian and moral behavior," Mohammad Ali Hosseini, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, told The Associated Press.
Speaking in Ankara, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said: "If indeed they are, as is said, being detained in reasonable circumstances then we can see no reason why they should not have contact with people from the British government so that they can be reassured that their family, their friends and their government are showing the proper concern for their welfare and whereabouts."
As defense and diplomatic officials said private talks were taking place with Iranian officials, a U.S. official gave the first detailed account of the incident that sparked the seizure of the Britons.
The British sailors had boarded an Indian-flagged commercial ship when they were seized Friday by Iranian naval forces.
"It was an Indian-flagged vessel. It was suspected of being involved in automobile smuggling (into Iraq)," said Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl, a spokesman for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, speaking in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from fleet headquarters in Manama, Bahrain.
Aandahl said the captain of the Indian ship had provided a statement that his vessel was in Iraqi waters at the time it was stopped by the British.
He said U.S. officials knew the GPS coordinates of the ship at the time the incident occurred, but would not release them publicly, adding the matter was being handled by the British government. British defense officials have refused to release the coordinates and declined to say whether the data has been shown to Iranian officials.
Boundaries between Iraqi and Iranian parts of the Shatt al-Arab waterway are disputed, but Britain's defense ministry said sailors used British sea maps to determine their position - not mapping provided by the Iraqi government.
"That whole area is disputed. They have never come to an agreement as to who actually controls those waters," said Sara Russell, an instructor at the Maritime Institute of Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia. "If you don't know who is actually in control, it's more difficult to determine who is allowed or not allowed to be moving throughout those waters."
Asked whether he thought Iran was retaliating for the arrest of five Iranians by U.S. forces in Iraq, Blair said that should have absolutely no bearing at all on the fate of the sailors.
"Any Iranian forces who are inside Iraq are breaching the U.N. mandate and undermining the democratically elected government of Iraq, so they have got no cause to be there at all," Blair said.
"The two situations are completely distinct."
"In the end, it is a question really for the Iranian government as to whether they want to abide by international law or not," the prime minister said.
Britain insists its forces were not doing anything wrong in stopping and boarding the ship, but the Iranians have condemned the move as an act of aggression, reports AP.
In June 2004, six British marines and two sailors were captured by Iran and paraded blindfolded on Iranian television. They admitted they had entered Iranian waters illegally but were released unharmed after three days.