Iranian state television on Wednesday showed British sailors talking to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the country's presidential palace apparently as they were being released. The footage showed Ahmadinejad shaking hands with the sailors and smiling and chatting. A caption to the footage said the conversation was taking place as part of the "process of release" of the British sailors. The channel said that the British sailors would leave Iran on a plane on Thursday.
Possible breakthrough in Iran-UK dispute
At the meeting, the sailors were wearing suits and spoke to the president through a translator.
"We appreciate it. Your people have been really kind to us, and we appreciate it very much," one of the seized sailors could be heard on the footage saying in English to Ahmadinejad.
One the sailors also was heard saying in English: "We are grateful for your forgiveness." Ahmadinejad responded in Farsi "You are welcome."
Earlier Wednesday the Iranian president had announced in a press conference that he had pardoned the 15 British sailors and marines that Iran seized in the Gulf last month and would release them immediately.
"I announce the freedom and return [of the sailors] to the people of Britain. I request the government of Mr. Blair not to question these people or put them on trial for speaking the truth, and I request Mr. Blair that rather than increase international controversy and the occupation of other lands, [he should] take steps towards peace, truthfulness and justice," Ahmadinejad said.
"On the occasion of the birthday of the great prophet (Muhammad) ... and for the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people - with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial - forgave those 15," he continued, referring to the Muslim prophet's birthday last Saturday and Easter, next Sunday.
"This pardon is a gift to the British people," he said.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office says it "welcomes" the release of the sailors but are still studying the implications of such a gesture and shall release an official reaction only after they have properly assessed the news.
The Iranian president announced the pardon minutes after he gave medals of honor to the Iranian coast guards who intercepted the sailors and marines, saying Iran will never accept trespassing of its territorial waters.
"On behalf of the great Iranian people, I want to thank the Iranian Coast Guard who courageously defended and captured those who violated their territorial waters, the president told a press conference.
He then interrupted his speech and pinned medals on the chests of three Coast Guard officers involved in capturing the British sailors and marines in the northern Gulf on March 23.
"We are sorry that British troops remain in Iraq and their sailors are being arrested in Iran," Ahmadinejad said.
He criticized Britain for deploying Leading Seaman Faye Turney, one of the 15 detainees, in the Gulf, pointing out that she is a woman with a child. "How can you justify seeing a mother away from her home, her children? Why don't they respect family values in the West?" he asked of the British government.
The announcement came 45 minutes after the beginning of his speech about the grievances Iran has suffered from the hands of the West over history.