ISTANBUL -- Iran said yesterday it intends to release eight British servicemen who had strayed across the maritime border from Iraq in three patrol boats two days earlier.
But after initially reporting that the Britons would be released yesterday, Iranian state media said they might not be freed until today because of the late arrival of a British delegation to pick them up.
A team of British diplomats landed yesterday in the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan and was being taken to the petrochemical center of Bandar Mahshahr for the handover of the British sailors and marines, a state-run Iranian television station reported.
Pushing aside earlier reports that the sailors and marines would be put on trial, a spokesman for the Iranian armed forces said Iran had accepted the explanation that the intrusion was accidental.
''Considering statements by British sailors that the boats carrying them mistakenly entered Iran's territorial waters, the armed forces decided to release the boats and their occupants," General Ali Reza Afshar was quoted as telling state radio.
''Those detained were carrying full military equipment and specialized maps of the region. After our investigation, it became clear that the equipment was for use in their coastal patrol mission," Afshar was quoted as saying.
Despite Afshar's comments, the state-run Iranian television station al Alam reported later that the British boats, weapons, and other equipment that were seized would remain in the custody of Iranian naval authorities.
The servicemen's expected release, which was also tipped by British officials, appeared likely to defuse a budding crisis between Tehran and London. Relations have been strained over a variety of issues in recent years. Iran refused to accept Britain's choice for ambassador to Tehran, and in recent weeks has assembled state-sponsored thugs to pelt its embassy with rocks at regular intervals. The embassy has also been the target of bullets and at least one suspicious explosion, although no injuries have resulted.
The timing of the seizure of the patrol boats generated speculation that Iran was retaliating for Britain's cosponsorship of a UN body's resolution critical of Iran. The incident came two days after Iran complained of being ''betrayed" by Britain, which joined two other European powers in sponsoring a resolution that deplored Iran's failure to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency on inspections of its nuclear power program.
The three small patrol vessels, after being taken by the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, were at first described by the Iranians as ''warships." The eight Britons on board were shown blindfolded on a state-owned satellite television channel intended for broadcast abroad.
A broadcast Tuesday by the Arabic-language al Alam television station showed two of the British captives, blindfolded and sitting cross-legged on the floor, apologizing for crossing the maritime border.
''I do apologize for entering Iranian territorial waters," said a captive who identified himself as Sergeant Thomas Harkins of the British Royal Marines.
Britain's Defense Ministry said the boats were being delivered to the Iraqi Riverine Patrol Service, which the British have been training. British forces patrol the southern reaches of Iraq as part of the US-led coalition that is due to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government June 30.