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Britain freezes contacts with Iran over detained naval crew

Britain said Wednesday it was freezing most contacts with Iran until 15 captured sailors and marines are freed and the Royal Navy released map coordinates to reinforce its claim that the group was seized illegally outside Iranian waters.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was time to increase pressure on Iran over the seizure of a Royal Navy crew and that satellite data had shown the capture of the 15 personnel on Friday was completely "unacceptable, wrong and illegal." Blair told the House of Commons it was "now time to ratchet up the international and diplomatic pressure" on Tehran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told The Associated Press during an Arab leaders summit meeting in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that Faye Turney, 26 - the only female crew member - could be released later on Wednesday or on Thursday.

Iranian state TV said it would air footage showing the captured British sailors.

Blair's office and the Foreign Office would not confirm if the offer had been made in negotiations with Iranian diplomats and said Britain continued to demand the immediate release of all 15 sailors and marines.

Defense officials said Iran, which claims the Britons had strayed into its waters, had changed its account of events during negotiations in London and Tehran - first offering coordinates which placed the naval vessels inside Iraqi waters.

Vice Admiral Charles Style said Iran gave the initial coordinates Sunday, but by Monday offered a revised position two miles (four kilometers) east, placing the British boats inside Iranian waters - a claim Style said was not verified by Global Positioning System coordinates.

Styles said satellite positioning coordinates showed the 15 Britons were 1.7 nautical miles (3.15 kilometers) inside Iraqi waters when they were detained.

"It is hard to understand a legitimate reason for this change of coordinates," Style said. "We unambiguously contest both the positions provided by the Iranians."

Two Iranian vessels armed with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades had ambushed the seven marines and eight sailors, Style said. Four other vessels joined the Iranian boats to escort the British crew - in their two small launches - to an Iranian Republican Guard compound, the defense ministry said.

Blair said that under rules of engagement the British crew, armed with pistols and SA80 assault rifles, could have fired in self defense, but had chosen not to as it would have "undoubtedly resulted in a severe loss of life".

Style gave the satellite coordinates of the British crew as 29 degrees 50.36 minutes north latitude and 048 degrees 43.08 minutes east longitude, and said it had been confirmed by an Indian-flagged merchant ship boarded by the sailors and marines.

But Iran insisted Wednesday the Britons had illegally crossed into Iranian waters in the northern part of the Persian Gulf, the "violation of international border and their intrusive act justified their detention," the Tehran government said in a statement issued through its London Embassy.

"Iran has already provided the geographical coordinates of the detention to British government and has sufficient evidence, including GPS navigator systems, to indicate the penetration of British military personal 0.5 (kilometers) deep into the Iranian waters," the statement said.

The statement said Iran was confident diplomats would resolve the incident through cooperation and rejected claims the case could be linked to the seizure by U.S. forces of Iranian personnel in Iraq.

"We are of this belief that this legal and technical issue has no link to any other issues," the Iranian statement said.

Coordinates presented by Style appeared to place the Britons just outside the area where the Shatt al-Arab empties into the Persian Gulf, rather than in the waterway as the Ministry of Defense had previously said.

The incident took place in the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, where it meets the northern Gulf, said a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government policy. He rejected claims that the waters remain the subject of dispute between Iran and Iraq. British personnel were "well and unambiguously inside Iraqi territory," he said.

A military picture taken from a helicopter hovering above the Indian vessel - suspected of illegally transporting automobiles - showed a handheld GPS device being held over the merchant ship from a British helicopter, displaying the coordinates 29.50.174 north and 048.43.544 east.

"It does seem that they are quite out from the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab," said Kaiyan Kaibobad, an expert on the waterway at Durham University, in northern England. "There is really no agreed boundary out there."

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said she had suspended bilateral talks on all other issues with Tehran until the naval crew are returned. Visits by officials will be stopped, issuing visas to Iranian officials suspended and British support for events such as trade missions put on hold, her office said.

"No one should be in any doubt about the seriousness with which we regard these events," Beckett told the House of Commons.

Beckett said Britain had now begun a "new phase of diplomatic activity," following Iran's failure to release the sailors and marines, or allow British officials access.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal had offered support, Beckett said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Iran's behavior was "fully unacceptable" and assured Britain of its full support in negotiations to win their release.

"The EU finds it fully unacceptable that 15 British troops have been captured and detained by Iran. We extend our absolute support and solidarity with Britain on this issue," Merkel told the European Parliament

"Our strength lies in a united approach. Many issues can only be tackled if we present a united common front," Merkel said.

Iran has confirmed the Britons are healthy and being treated well and that Turney, 26, the only woman among the crew, had been given privacy.

The crew are "in good health and condition and they enjoy welfare and Iranian hospitality. We understand the anxiety of their families, but they must be assured that they are in safe hands and have a better life than the risky mission in the Persian Gulf waters," the Iranian statement said.

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