British Navy's "HMS Cornwall," where the sailors were based (file photo) (epa)
March 27, 2007 -- Britain has again called on Iran to quickly release the 15 British sailors and marines it has been holding since March 23.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, in an interview on British television, warned that efforts to secure the group's release could enter a "different phase" if diplomatic efforts failed.
"I hope we manage to get [the Iranian government] to realize they have to release them," Blair said. "If not, then this will move into a different phase, but at the moment what we are trying to do is to make sure that that diplomatic initiative works."
Blair's official spokesman, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, later told reporters the prime minister was not hinting at the possible expulsion of Iranian diplomats or military action.
Iran Questioning Britons
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehzi Mostafavi told AP that Iran will decide what to do after determining whether the British group's alleged entry into Iranian waters was "intentional or unintentional."
Hard-liners in Iran want the 15 British sailors and marines charged with espionage and tried. Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps captured the group on March 23 while it was conducting what Britain called an inspection of a merchant vessel near the mouth of the Shatt Al-Arab, at the northern end of the Persian Gulf.
Britain says the sailors and marines were conducting a routine search of shipping near Iran and Iraq's southern border. Iran says they entered Iranian waters illegally.
British, Iraqi Appeals
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett has appealed to Iran to allow access to the British sailors and marines to check that they are "in good health."
Speaking in the Turkish capital, Ankara, on March 26, Beckett vowed that Britain will continue to press Iran until the incident is successfully resolved.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said today that the British personnel are in good health and are being treated humanely, but did not say where the group was being kept.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called earlier on Iran to free the British personnel in a telephone call with his Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki.
Zebari said the British personnel were detained in Iraqi waters.
(compiled from agency reports)