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Iran Guards Say They've Detained Five Britons In Gulf


British Foreign Secretary David Miliband
TEHRAN (Reuters) -- Iran's Revolutionary Guards have detained five Britons in the Gulf, a Guards commander confirmed today, adding that it was the elite force's duty to confront "foreign forces" in the strategic waterway.

The detentions, first announced by Britain on November 30, may add to tension between Tehran and London.

Britain is among Western powers embroiled in a long-running row with Tehran over the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions.

But British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who on November 30 said the Britons' racing yacht might have strayed into Iranian waters, said there was no dispute with Iran and that he believed the yachtsmen were being well-treated.

"We understand that the Iranian government are investigating the incident, which is perfectly reasonable, and then we would look forward to it being promptly sorted out," he told BBC.

Oil prices rose by more than $1 on fears of a diplomatic crisis after news of the detention was made public on November 30. The Gulf's Strait of Hormuz is a vital route for global oil supplies.

"The Britons have been arrested by the Revolutionary Guards' naval forces. Confronting foreign forces and detaining them in the Gulf is the Revolutionary Guards' duty," said Ali Reza Tangsiri, a commander of the Guards' naval forces, the semi-official Fars News Agency reported.

A Revolutionary Guards spokesman told Reuters the case was under investigation and declined further comment.

Hard-line Iranian students will gather outside the British Embassy in Tehran on December 2 to protest "the Britons' illegal entry" into Iranian waters, the ISNA news agency reported.

'Most Treacherous'

Miliband said on November 30 that the yacht was stopped by Iranian naval vessels on November 25.

Organizers of a race in which the yachtsmen were planning to take part said the vessel had reported problems with a propeller en route from Bahrain to Dubai in the Gulf.

British television identified the five sailors as Oliver Smith, Sam Usher, Oliver Young, Luke Porter, and David Bloomer.

Relations between Britain and Iran have been dogged by tension in recent years over a range of issues, from Tehran's nuclear program to Iranian allegations of British involvement in postelection violence in June this year.

Britain protested to Iran over a speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after the June protests, in which he called Britain "the most treacherous" of Iran's enemies.

In March 2007, Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces seized eight British navy sailors and seven marines in the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway that separates Iran and Iraq. They were freed unharmed the following month.

Three Americans who crossed into Iran from Iraq in July are still detained and face spying charges. Their families say they were hiking and strayed across the border accidentally.

On November 29, Miliband was among world leaders who condemned Iran's announcement that it planned to build 10 new uranium enrichment plants in a major expansion of its atomic program.

A new U.S. intelligence study says Iran has restructured its naval forces to give an arm of the Revolutionary Guards full responsibility for operations in the Gulf in the event of a conflict.