British prime minister prepares to show Iran broke law in capture

( LatWp ) - Barring a surprise early release, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is preparing to go public in Parliament as soon as Wednesday with concrete evidence that Iran violated international law in seizing 15 British military personnel, after behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts failed, according to British and U.S. officials.

Tensions over the incident escalated Tuesday, with oil prices hitting a six-month high following suggestions by officials in Tehran that the 15 sailors and marines captured by Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval units last Friday might be put on trial. Adding to the atmospherics, two U.S. aircraft-carrier battle groups began two days of military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf.

Blair is expected to release Global Positioning System coordinates of the seizure, which British officials say took place in Iraqi waters, and other intelligence information on the encounter as early as his question-and-answer session in Parliament Wednesday, British officials said.

``What we are trying to do ... is to pursue this through the diplomatic channels and make the Iranian government understand these people have to be released, and that there is absolutely no justification whatever for holding them,'' Blair said Tuesday.

``They have to release them. If not, then this will move into a different phase,'' he told Britain's GMTV television.

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said that the British sailors and marines had ``violated Iranian territory rights,'' prompting ``legal proceedings'' against them, according to the official IRNA news agency.

``Humanitarian principles are fully observed in questioning'' the British navy personnel, Hosseini said, but he added that ``provocative statements will not help solve the problem.''

Britain is not yet ready to expel Iranian diplomats or engage in gunboat diplomacy, British officials said, but does want to pressure Iran publicly after it transferred the 14 men and one woman to an unknown locale, denied them consular services and interrogated them.

The British marines and sailors had just inspected an Indian boat near the Shatt al Arab waterway that divides Iran and Iraq when they were surrounded by Iranian patrol boats at gunpoint Friday. The British navy was acting under its U.N. mandate to patrol Iraqi waters and check for smuggling, British officials said.

Having tensions of its own with Iran, the United States was initially reluctant to get ahead of Britain on the crisis. But on Tuesday, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the Iranian action was ``a violation of international law.''

At the same time, officials from both the State Department and the Pentagon said they expect the United States to talk to Iran at an upcoming regional meeting of the United States and countries bordering Iraq. The State Department's Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, said the meeting is expected to be convened in the next few weeks.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a speech in Washington on Tuesday that the Bush administration is now ``open to high-level exchanges'' with Tehran. He warned, however, that the United States has ``no illusions about the nature of this regime or about their designs for their nuclear program, their intentions for Iraq or their ambitions in the Gulf region.''

Britain's Defense Ministry has not released the names of the service members detained in Iran, but the family of the only woman, Faye Turney, 26, issued a statement saying that this was ``a very distressing time.''

In an interview with the BBC last week before her capture, Turney said of her tour of duty in Iraq, ``Sometimes you may be called upon, and when you do, you've just got to deal with it and get on with it.''

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