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Iran holds 5 U.K. nationals after yacht intercepted

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

LONDON -- Iran is holding five British sailors after stopping their racing yacht in the Persian Gulf, the British government said Monday. The move could heighten tensions between Iran and major world powers, including Britain, that are demanding a halt to its nuclear program.

The yacht owned by Sail Bahrain was stopped on its way from the tiny island country to the Gulf city of Dubai on Wednesday when it "may have strayed inadvertently into Iranian waters," Britain's Foreign Office said. Sail Bahrain's website identified the yacht as the "Kingdom of Bahrain" and said it had been due to join the 360-mile Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race, which was to begin Nov. 26.

Attempts to reach representatives of the raceboat's owner were not successful.

It is not clear what route the boat took from Bahrain, which is just off the coast of Saudi Arabia, and Dubai, on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Richard Schofield, an expert on international boundaries in the Middle East at King's College in London, said it was difficult to understand how its crew could have ended up in trouble with Iranian authorities.

"It's hard to see why, on a regular journey from Bahrain to Dubai, they would have gone through Iranian territorial waters," he said.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said British officials had been in touch about the matter with their Iranian counterparts for nearly a week. It was not immediately clear why British officials had decided to publicize the case now.

"I hope this issue will soon be resolved," Miliband said in the brief statement.

The statement added that the crew members -- identified by British media as Oliver Smith, Sam Usher, Luke Porter, Oliver Young, and David Bloomer -- were still in Iran but were "understood to be safe."

The statement did not go into further detail and a Foreign Office spokeswoman said she was not in a position to elaborate.

She spoke anonymously in line with department policy. A spokesman for Britain's military also declined to comment.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry official said he was not aware of reports a British yacht had been stopped. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard has the responsibility for protecting Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. Officials from the Guard and from the regular navy could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Iran is holding three young Americans who strayed across the border from northern Iraq in July. The U.S. has appealed for their release, saying they were innocent hikers who accidentally crossed into Iran. Tehran has accused them of spying, a sign that they could be put on trial.

Fifteen British military personnel were detained in the Gulf by Iran under disputed circumstances in March 2007. Iran charged them with trespassing in its waters, and the Iranian government televised apologies by some of the captured crew.

All were eventually freed without an apology from Britain, which steadfastly insisted the crew members were taken in Iraqi waters, where they were authorized to be.

Schofield, of King's College, said that Iran had a pattern of taking such action when it was feeling "a little defensive."

"There's pressure being felt," he said. "It has happened before." But he added that, as this case involved civilians, it was less likely to be prey to international tensions.

The phone rang unanswered at the Iranian Embassy in London.

Iran's nuclear chief on Monday said U.N. criticism of its nuclear program had pushed his country to retaliate by announcing ambitious plans for more uranium enrichment. With tensions rising over deadlocked negotiations, France said diplomacy was not working and sanctions against Iran were needed.


Associated Press writers Sylvia Hui in London and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed to this report.


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