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With freed Britons’ return, questions on detention begin

Times Staff Writer

A joyous reception for 15 British sailors and marines freed by Iran quickly turned to hard questioning Thursday about the British military’s handling of the event and the purported confessions the Britons offered to their Iranian captors.

The 14 men and one woman had scarcely settled down at a marine base in Devon when politicians began calling for inquiries on how the crews of two small patrol boats had found themselves lightly armed, without escort and far from their ship in disputed Persian Gulf waters.

“I think there certainly will need to be an investigation, from the military point of view, as to how the Revolutionary Guards managed to sneak up on them without anybody noticing. And I’ve got no idea what the answer is going to be,” Phyllis Starkey, a Labor member of Parliament, said in an interview.

Some commentators said the captured personnel must explain the apparently easygoing demeanor with which they admitted entering Iranian waters and made public, televised apologies after their March 23 detention by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

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Prime Minister Tony Blair credited calm diplomacy for the release of the detainees, and said Britons were “sufficiently intelligent” not to be taken in by “the theater” of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announced pardon.

“It is correct that over the past couple of weeks there have been new and interesting lines of communication opened up with the Iranian regime, and it’s sensible for us to continue to pursue those,” Blair said.

“However, the international community has got to remain absolutely steadfast in enforcing its will, whether it is in respect of nuclear weapons, or in respect of the support of any part of the Iranian regime for terrorism.”

The lone woman among the British personnel, Leading Seaman Faye Turney, gave a hint that the group was uneasy about the reception they would receive. “Not many of us slept last night, because we weren’t sure what the reaction will be back home,” she said in an interview with Iranian television at Tehran airport.

The public reception in Britain has been overwhelmingly warm and celebratory, and senior military officials have stood solidly behind the crew members, declaring they had followed military procedures.

“They did exactly as they should have done from start to finish in this entire incident, and we’re extremely proud of them,” British Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup, chief of the defense staff, told the BBC.

“You’ve only got to look at them, you’ve only got to listen to what they say, to be able to draw your own conclusions,” he said of their purported confessions to straying into Iranian waters while inspecting ships.

“Nobody can be judged for what they say under duress,” said Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative member of Parliament. “They will have resisted giving any sensitive or classified information they may have had, but beyond that, you can’t expect service personnel to risk life and limb, when we know that anything they say for public consumption is likely to be contrived anyway, so what weight does it really carry?”

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But some commentators and defense analysts were less generous toward the freed personnel and the military command behind them.

“The Royal Navy have got some questions to answer,” said Charles Heyman, a former defense studies lecturer at the Royal Air Force College who also served as a general staff officer in the British army. “Why did that boarding party not have proper air cover? Why did they board the ship on the blind side? I don’t think that crew was properly trained,” he said.

Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover wrote Thursday that he felt “not shame so much as shock ... that they should have complied so readily” with Iran’s apparent demands for apologies.

“I do not blame the hostages for their apparent willingness to confess and apologize,” Glover wrote. “But we had better be honest with ourselves. In no previous era -- not during World War II or Korea or Suez or the Falklands -- would British servicemen have behaved in such a manner.”

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Chris Brown, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said that depending on what came out in an investigation of the circumstances, “dishonorable discharge would not be an inappropriate response in some cases.”

“I don’t blame the other ranks, but there were two officers involved there who certainly seemed to be acknowledging that they had gone into Iranian waters and apologizing, and they had no right to do that,” he said.

Paul Beaver, a former special advisor to the House of Commons defense committee, said the question of whether the personnel had received training on proper conduct after capture would be one of the issues of interest to investigators.

“The prime minister will want to know -- and I think it is that serious -- what the rules of engagement were to deal with this situation. He’ll want to know why the captain of the [Royal Navy frigate Cornwall] didn’t know what was going on, why his helicopter wasn’t there, why they didn’t know there were [Iranian Revolutionary] Guard Corps people in the area.

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“They’ll also want to know why it would seem that everybody has been saying, ‘Yes, we’d like to apologize to the Iranian people for our transgressions,’ when British government policy was that these two boats were not in Iranian waters, but in Iraqi waters,” Beaver said.

“I have to say, there are lots of former naval people I’ve talked to in the last two weeks who are very disappointed in the whole course of events, and they think it makes the whole Royal Navy look completely ineffective.”

But among friends and relatives waiting Thursday at the Royal Marine Base Chivenor, where two Sea King helicopters carrying the crew touched down at midafternoon, there was no hint of anything but pride and relief. The rest of the day was spent sharing hugs, tears, smiles and a good dinner. Low-key debriefing was expected to take until at least today.

“The past two weeks have been very difficult, but by staying together as a team, we kept our spirits up, drawing great comfort from the knowledge that our loved ones would be waiting for us on our return,” the group said in a statement.

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“It is only now that we have learned of the enormous public support we’ve all enjoyed, and we wish to thank everyone for their thoughts, kind words and prayers.”

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kim.murphy@latimes.com


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