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Britain Get Sailors Back, with Some Sad News

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Fifteen British sailors and marines were reunited with their families in England today. They had been detained for nearly two weeks after being captured by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf. Britain always maintained they were in Iraqi waters when they were seized.

Tehran accused the Royal Navy crew of entering Iranian territory illegally. Yesterday, they were freed by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Just ahead, our conversation with the father of one of the British sailors.

First, NPR's Rob Gifford reports from London.

ROB GIFFORD: The crew's British Airways flight landed at London's Heathrow Airport at around noon local time. By the time they disembarked, the crew had changed back into military uniform and they stood briefly on the tarmac before being ushered to two waiting helicopters.

As they'd left Tehran, Iranian state television had shown further interviews with two of the service personnel who'd previously confessed to entering Iranian waters illegally. The only woman in the group, leading seaman Faye Turney and Lieutenant Felix Carman.

Ms. FAYE TURNEY (British Sailor): The treatment has been great, but we just want to get back, go home and see my family. I'm anxious to go home.

Lieutenant FELIX CARMAN (British Royal Navy): To Iranian people, I can understand why you were insulted by apparent intrusion to your waters. I'd like to say that no harm was meant to Iranian people or its territories whatsoever, under the hope that this experience will help to build the relationship between our countries.

GIFFORD: That was not the thought uppermost in the mind of British Prime Minister Tony Blair as he spoke to reporters upon the crew's arrival. Blair welcomed their safe return but made clear that the release of the captives did not wipe the slate clean between London and Tehran.

Blair said the death of four British soldiers, two of them women, killed with their interpreter in an ambush in Basra just hours before the Royal Navy crew arrived in London had tempered any sense of jubilation. And he didn't mince his words about what he believes is ongoing Iranian involvement in Iraq.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Britain): Now, it is far too early to say the particular terrorist act that's killed our forces was an act committed by terrorists who were backed by any elements of the Iranian regime. So I make no allegation in respect to that particular instant. But the general picture, as I said before, is that there are elements at least of the Iranian regime that are backing terrorism in Iraq.

GIFFORD: The members of the crew were taken by a helicopter to a military base in Southwest England, where they had an emotional reunion with their families. In a statement released several hours after they arrived, they said the past two weeks had been very difficult. But the statement read, by staying together as a team, they had kept their spirits up.

The BBC quoted one family member saying, "one of the team had been held in solitary confinement." The chief of defense staff, Air Chief Marshal Jock Stirrup met with the crew and said there was no question of any kind of reprimand for the confessions they'd made on Iranian television.

Air Chief Marshal JOCK STIRRUP (United Kingdom Chief of Defense Staff): They look very happy and they all look in good shape. But of course, we will get them the proper medical examination. Of course, they'll be properly debriefed. As far as the statements that they had to make on Iranian television, you've already got a look at them.

You've already listened to what they say as to be able to draw your own conclusions. They did exactly as they should have done from start to finish in this entire incident and we're extremely proud of them.

GIFFORD: After the captives' departure, Iran said the group had been released because Prime Minister Blair had sent a personal note of apology, a statement categorically denied by Blair's office. And the prime minister continued to insist that the sailors and marines were released, as he put it, without any deal, without any negotiation, without any side agreement of any nature.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.