Iranian naval vessels seized 15 British sailors and marines Friday in Iraqi waters, the UK's Ministry of Defense said. Several hours later, Iranians said the personnel had been siezed for entering Iranian waters.
Cmdr. Kevin Aandahl of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is stationed nearby, said a "very limited exchange of communication" occurred between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Navy after it had intercepted the Royal Navy service members saying "that no harm had come to any personnel and that they were being taken to a place of safety."
The Iranians said they had captured the sailors and marines because they were operating inside Iranian
territorial waters. "The Royal Navy replied that they were well inside Iraqi territorial waters (and) that was the end of the conversation," Aandahl said.
The British personnel from the frigate HMS Cornwall were "engaged in routine boarding operations of merchant shipping in Iraqi territorial waters," and had completed their inspection of a merchant ship when they were accosted by Iranian vessels, the British ministry said Friday afternoon in a statement.
In London, Foreign Office Permanent Undersecretary Sir Peter Ricketts summoned Iranian ambassador Rasoul Movahedian to a meeting. A spokesman said is was "brisk but cordial. Sir Peter demanded the safe return of our personnel and equipment."
"This may well be a misunderstanding. We're certainly treating it as such at the moment. We're looking for the mistake to be corrected," said a British government source.
Unusual Iranian response
A fisherman who said he was with a group of Iraqis from Basra in the northern area of the Gulf said he witnessed the event. The fisherman declined to be identified because of security concerns.
"Two boats, each with a crew of six to eight multinational forces, were searching Iraqi and Iranian boats Friday morning in Ras al-Beesha area in the northern entrance of the Arab Gulf, but big Iranian boats came and took the two boats with their crews to the Iranian waters," said the fisherman.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that the British forces were inspecting a ship suspected of smuggling cars, but did not cite a source for the report. BBC reporter Ian Pannell on HMS Cornwall aslo said the sailors had just boarded a dhow when they were accosted.
"While they were on board, a number of Iranian boats approached the waters in which they were operating - the Royal Navy are insistent that they were operating in Iraqi waters and not Iranian waters - and essentially captured the Royal Navy and Royal Marine personnel at gunpoint," Pannell said.
According to Cmdr. Aandahl, the seizure of the British vessels, a pair of rigid inflatable boats known as RIBs, took place in long-disputed waters just outside of the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway that divides Iraq from Iran.
A 1975 treaty gave the waters to Iraq and US and British ships commonly operate there, but Aandahl said Iran disputes Iraq's jurisdiction over the waters. "It's been in dispute for some time," he said.
"We've been operating there for a couple of years and we know the lines very well. This was a compliant boarding, this happens routinely. What's out of the ordinary is the Iranian response."
The incident took place a day after Iran launched a week of naval war games along its coast, including the narrow northern reaches of the Gulf which control access to the vast oil reserves of Iraq, Iran and Kuwait.
In June 2004, six British marines and two sailors were seized by Iran in the Shatt al-Arab between Iran and Iraq. They were presented blindfolded on Iranian television and admitted entering Iranian waters illegally. They were released unharmed after three days.
Reuters contributed to this report