Ten U.S. sailors and two patrol boats detained by Iran on January 12 and accused of trespassing have been released after Tehran determined they did not deliberately enter Iranian waters.
"It was determined that the detained American Marines did not enter Iranian waters intentionally," the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was quoted as telling Iranian state television. "Following their apology, they have been released to international waters in the [Persian] Gulf."
The U.S. military has confirmed that the sailors were back in U.S. custody and that "there are no indications that the sailors were harmed."
“All indications suggest or tell us that our soldiers were well taken care of, provided with blankets and food and assisted with their return to the fleet earlier today,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in a speech delivered on January 13.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden denied claims that Washington had apologized over the incident.
"When you have a problem with the boat, [do] you apologize the boat had a problem? No," Biden said in an interview with the U.S. television network CBS. "And there was no looking for any apology. This was just standard nautical practice."
The sailors departed Farsi Island, which lies roughly midway between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, in the morning of January 13 (8:43 a.m. GMT) aboard the two boats, a U.S. statement said. They were picked up by U.S. Navy aircraft and other sailors took control of their boats for the return to Bahrain, where the U.S. 5th Fleet is based.
"There are no indications that the sailors were harmed during their brief detention," a statement issued by the Pentagon said. "The Navy will investigate the circumstances that led to the sailors' presence in Iran."
Earlier, Kerry thanked Iran for its cooperation in the sailors' release.
"I want to express my gratitude to Iranian authorities for their cooperation in swiftly resolving this matter," Kerry said. "That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong."
Writing on Twitter, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that he was "happy to see dialogue and respect, not threats and impetuousness, swiftly resolved the sailors episode."
Kerry and Zarif have a close relationship after a recent nuclear deal between Tehran and the P5+1 group of powers (the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia, plus Germany).
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter welcomed the sailors' release and praised "the timely way in which this situation was resolved."
Carter said in a statement issued in Washington that he wanted to thank Kerry for his "diplomatic engagement" on the incident.
The two U.S. Navy boats and their crews -- nine men and one woman -- were detained on January 12 after entering Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf.
U.S. officials said one or both vessels experienced mechanical troubles while on a training mission and were taken to Farsi Island, a tiny island that is home to an IRGC naval base.
U.S. officials said radio contact had been lost with the two boats, which they described as riverine-class patrol vessels under 20 meters in length -- while they were en route from Kuwait to Bahrain.
After announcing the release, state television broadcast the first pictures of the detained sailors, who were shown sitting in a room on Persian rugs.
Later, Iranian state TV also released footage of the arrest, showing the sailors kneeling down with hands behind their heads. They were also seen eating food provided by Iranian officials.
The video showed weapons and ammunition confiscated from the sailors. It also included images of U.S. passports being inspected.
After Biden denied making an apology, Iranian state television released footage of a detained U.S. sailor apologizing for having entered waters controlled by Iran.
"It was a mistake, that was our fault, and we apologize for our mistake," the sailor, who was introduced as a U.S. navy commander, said in English on IRIB state TV.
Images of the two boats were also aired by state television.
The release of the boats and crews came soon after the commander of the IRGC's naval force, Admiral Ali Fadavi, said on January 13 that he was awaiting a final order to set the sailors free.
He told state television that "unprofessional acts" had led to the incident and said that Kerry had called Zarif on January 12 to discuss the situation.
"Mr. Zarif had a strong stance and told Mr. Kerry these were our territorial waters and you should apologize," Fadavi said.
Despite his claim that there had been a call for a U.S. apology, Fadavi also struck a conciliatory note, saying that Iran had concluded that "this trespassing was not hostile or for spying purposes" and that the sailors had been in Iranian territory "due to a broken navigation system."
Earlier on January 13, an IRGC spokesman said the U.S. sailors were interrogated on Farsi Island. The claim could not be confirmed.
Meanwhile, Iran's army chief said on January 13 that the seizure of the two U.S. vessels should be a lesson to members the U.S. Congress trying to impose new sanctions on Tehran.
"This incident in the Persian Gulf, which probably will not be the American forces' last mistake in the region, should be a lesson to troublemakers in the U.S. Congress," Major General Hassan Firouzabadi was quoted as saying by the Tasnim news agency.
U.S.-Iranian relations were strained by U.S. claims last month that Iran fired missiles close to a U.S. aircraft carrier in the gulf.
Last year, Iranian patrol boats seized the Maersk Tigris, a cargo ship sailing under the flag of the Marshall Islands, providing it U.S. protection.
In March 2007, Iranian naval forces captured 15 British Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel and held them for 13 days before releasing them.
With reporting by AFP, AP, Fars, CBS, and Reuters