TEHRAN -- Iran said yesterday it could soon free eight British sailors seized a day earlier along the border with Iraq if interrogations show they had ''no bad intention," the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
The comments by General Ali Reza Afshar, an Iranian armed forces spokesman, suggested a softening of earlier statements that the sailors would be prosecuted.
Iranian television at first showed the sailors blindfolded and seated cross-legged on the ground. Two of the sailors were later shown on state-run television last night, reading a statement of apology for entering Iran's territorial waters and saying it was a mistake.
''My name is Sergeant Thomas Harkins from the British Royal Marines. I do apologize for entering Iranian territorial waters," one of the men said.
The men were standing next to a river. The broadcast, on Arabic language Al-Alam television, also showed the three British military patrol boats and weapons it said had been confiscated from the sailors.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman said British officials would remind Iran of its obligations under international law. ''We will continue to underline to the Iranian government that we expect the people involved to be treated under the relevant international criteria," the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.
The Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Afshar as saying, ''If the outcome of the interrogations of the British military men shows that they had no bad intention, they will be released soon."
The sailors were detained Monday in the Shatt-al-Arab and accused of illegally entering Iran's territorial waters as they were delivering a patrol boat for the new Iraqi river patrol service. The Shatt-al-Arab, known as the Arvand River in Iran, runs along the Iran-Iraq border.
Earlier yesterday, Iran's state-run Arabic language Al-Alam television said the sailors would be prosecuted ''for illegally entering Iranian territorial waters."
It said the vessels were 1,000 yards inside Iranian territory.
''The crew have also confessed to having entered Iranian waters," the broadcast said. It added the sailors were carrying maps and weapons.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw yesterday telephoned his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, to ask for the sailors' release.
A Foreign Office official said: ''We are very concerned by the pictures, and we are raising it with the Iranians at the appropriate level."
Later, the British government summoned the Iranian ambassador in London, Morteza Sarmadi, demanding an explanation for the arrests of the sailors, who were on what the Foreign Office called a routine mission.