( Lat ) - Britain froze all government contacts with Iran as the Islamic Republic came under mounting international and domestic pressure to release 15 British sailors captured in the northern Persian Gulf.
British officials released detailed maps and coordinates they said proved that the detained navy and marine personnel were operating 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi territorial waters, and announced that they would have no ties with Iran except for talks to win the captives' release.
Iran said Wednesday the detainees were arrested 0.3 miles inside Iranian waters, underscoring what some experts say is the uncertain nature of the boundary that is at the heart of the dispute. Iranian officials did signal that the one female sailor among the captives, who looked drawn and tense in images shown on Iranian television, would be released soon.
``We are now in a new phase of diplomatic activity,'' British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett told Parliament. ``We will, therefore, be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran until this situation is resolved.''
The freeze will include diplomatic contacts, trade missions and the issuance of visas to Iranian government officials, the Foreign Office said.
The action came as Iranian TV broadcast footage of the captives, including Leading Seaman Faye Turney, 26, who told an off-camera interviewer that she and her colleagues had trespassed into Iranian waters.
``I am so sorry we did, because I know we wouldn't be here now if we hadn't,'' Turney said in a handwritten letter to her family that was also shown on the broadcast. ``I have written a letter to the Iranian people to apologize for entering into their waters. Please don't worry about me. I am staying strong.''
The British government immediately protested, calling it ``completely unacceptable'' for footage of the detained sailors and marines to be shown on television.
``Given the nature of Leading Seaman Faye Turney's statement, in particular the apparent confession that the personnel were `arrested after they trespassed into Iranian waters,' we have grave concerns as to the circumstances under which she made this statement,'' the Foreign Office said in a statement following the broadcast.
The images, on Iran's state-operated Arabic language Alalam TV, showed the detainees in a small inflatable raft, apparently shot during the boat seizing operation, then cut to them dining. Turney was then shown wearing a black headscarf and smoking a cigarette, red-faced and apparently nervous.
``I am being well looked after. I am fed three meals a day, and have a constant supply of fluids,'' she said in her letter, which was later released by the Iranian Embassy in London. ``The people are friendly and hospitable, very compassionate and warm,'' she said.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told the Times that Turney would be handed over to the British Embassy in Tehran, ``within one or two days, God willing.''
The Iranian Embassy in Britain released a statement, apparently seeking to cool the dispute that has sent oil prices soaring and raised fears of a serious confrontation. It emphasized that the incident was not related to the conflict over Iran's nuclear program, or the recent vote by the United Nations Security Council imposing more sanctions against Iran.
``We are of this belief that this legal and technical issue has no link to any other issues and unfounded speculations and excited rhetorics can be counterproductive,'' the statement said.
``At this stage, the investigation is being continued, and all British marines and sailors are in good heath and condition, and they enjoy welfare and Iranian hospitality,'' it continued. ``We understand the anxiety of their families, but they must be assured that they are in safe hands, and have a better life than the risky mission in the Persian Gulf waters.''
The Iranian government has come under increasing domestic pressure to end the standoff, which threatens to bring increased international sanctions against a nation already isolated both economically and diplomatically over the nuclear issue.
Opposition figures in Tehran spoke out for the first time against the hard-line government's actions.
``The capture of the 15 British sailors was a blunder from the very beginning and the continuation of it is a mistake as well,'' said Rajabali Mazrouie, a former lawmaker and journalist for the daily newspaper Sarmayie in Tehran.
But hardliners also continued to press their case. Conservative students near Iran's southwestern Shalamcheh border outpost demonstrated for a second day, burning British Prime Minister Tony Blair in effigy and demanding that authorities put the detained sailors on trial.