British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett on Tuesday urged caution over expecting a swift resolution to the crisis involving 15 detained naval personnel, hours after British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the next 48-hours would be critical to quickly resolving the standoff. "We should be cautious in thinking we will see a swift conclusion," Beckett said. "Diplomatic efforts continue." Beckett said Britain still had not been granted consular access to the captive sailors and marines, who have been held by Iran since March 23.
'Iran wants a diplomatic solution'
Earlier Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that Britain would "take an increasingly tougher position" if diplomatic moves did not yield results.
Beckett said Blair was not talking about military action.
"He is not talking or attempting to imply anything about military action. We are not seeking confrontation," she said. "We are seeking to resolve this through diplomatic channels."
Also Tuesday, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped two months ago in Iraq has been freed, Iranian officials said Tuesday, as Teheran reported diplomatic talks were beginning to try to resolve the standoff over 15 British sailors seized in the Persian Gulf.
Jalal Sharafi, second secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, was released Monday and has already left Iraq, an Iranian diplomat said in the Iraqi capital. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
Iran said Sharafi had been abducted by a special Iraqi unit which reports directly to American forces, an allegation supported by several Iraqi Shi'ite lawmakers.
"The next 48 hours will be fairly critical," Blair told Scotland's Real Radio earlier. He said Iranian negotiator Ali Larijani's suggestion of talks offered the hope of an end to the crisis.
"If they want to resolve this in a diplomatic way the door is open," the premier said.
But if negotiations to win the quick release of the 15 sailors and marines stalled, Britain would "take an increasingly tougher position," he said.
Also Tuesday, the British Independent reported that the British hostage crisis was the result of hostilities between Iran and the coalition forces in Iraq set off in January by an alleged US attempt to abduct two of Iran's leading security figures in Iraq.
According to the report, the US raid on an Iranian liason office in Arbil, in which five of the office's employees were taken captive, actually intended to apprehend two officials of much higher rank - Muhammad Jafari, deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, head of Iranian Revolutionary Guard intelligence.
Kurdish officials said that Jafari and Frouzanda had been in Iraq for meetings with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
In Baghdad, a senior Iraqi foreign ministry official said on Tuesday that the government was "intensively" seeking release of the five Iranians.
"This will be a factor that will help in the release of the British sailors and marines" the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the issue is so sensitive.