British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office sought to calm fears Monday that a dispute over the capture of a British navy crew would deepen tensions between Teheran and the West, as Iran said it was interrogating the 15 British service personnel accused of illegally entering Iranian waters. The detention of the Britons appeared likely to worsen relations with Iran at a time when Teheran is at odds with the West over its nuclear program and is accused of interfering with the Iraq war. But Blair's spokesman said the prime minister intended to treat the seizure of naval personnel as a distinct issue. "This is a matter that should be dealt with on its own merits," he said.
Iran: British sailors 'bargaining chips'
Blair said Sunday he hoped the situation could be resolved in as diplomatic a way as possible, and his office stressed the British leader had been "very careful when he intervened," mindful of the potential repercussions on other issues.
The seizure of the crew was a matter to "be treated on its own, and that is how we are approaching it," Blair's official spokesman said.
Iranian officials said the crew was being interrogated, and Teheran has rejected British requests to visit them, warning the personnel could face charges for allegedly entering Iranian waters - a claim Blair's office has repeatedly rejected.
"There is no doubt in our mind that they were in Iraqi waters," Blair's official spokesman said Monday.
Britain's Defense Ministry would not disclose details of positioning equipment carried on board the craft the sailors were using when seized, but said it was "categorically certain" they had not strayed into Iranian waters.
Earlier Monday, British newspaper The Independent reported that a senior US officer in the Persian Gulf expressed surprise at how easily the team of Britsh sailors were taken captive by Iran on Friday, saying that US marines would have fired on the Iranian forces.
"The unique US Navy rules of engagement say we not only have a right to self-defense but also an obligation to self-defense," Lt.-Cmdr. Erik Horner, who has been working with the British task force in the region, told the newspaper.
"They [the British] had every right in my mind and every justification to defend themselves rather than allow themselves to be taken. Our reaction was, 'Why didn't your guys defend themselves?'"
The group of 15 sailors was taken at gunpoint by Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Al Quds soldiers after "routine boarding operations of merchant shipping in Iraqi territorial waters," according to a US statement issued after the incident on Friday.