TEHRAN -- Ending a tense, two-week diplomatic standoff, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday pardoned 15 British sailors and marines detained while on patrol in the Persian Gulf and said he was sending them home as a "gift" to the British people.
The sailors flew out of Tehran's airport early today on a commercial flight, according to the Associated Press.
The Iranian president made the unexpected announcement during a news conference at which he pinned medals on the border patrol officers who oversaw the detention of the sailors on March 23.
"On the occasion of the birth anniversary of the great prophet of Islam, and on the occasion of Easter and Passover, I would like to announce that the great nation of Iran, while it is entitled to put the British military personnel on trial, has pardoned these 15 sailors and gives their release to the people of Britain as a gift," Ahmadinejad said.
British diplomats appeared to be caught off-guard at the announcement, but scrambled to make arrangements for the sailors' return to Britain, tentatively expected at midday today. The British Foreign Office said Britain's ambassador in Tehran had visited with the detainees yesterday.
The logjam appears to have broken after telephone contacts Tuesday night between Ali Larijani, Iran's chief international negotiator, and Nigel Sheinwald, Blair's chief adviser on foreign affairs, who is slated to become Britain's new ambassador to the United States.
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It also followed the release in Iraq of an Iranian diplomat detained in Baghdad in February, prompting the British media to raise the spectre of a "secret deal." British officials said the events were unconnected.
Also in Iraq, the US military disclosed yesterday that it was considering an "informal" request from Iran to allow a consular visit to five Iranians detained in Iraq since January. The Islamic Republic News Agency reported that an Iranian embassy official was scheduled to meet with the detainees. Major General William B. Caldwell, a US military spokesman in Iraq, said that an Iranian was among a Red Cross delegation that visited the five men.
"An informal request has come in for a consular visit, and is being assessed at this time," he said.
In his news conference, Ahmadinejad said the pardon did not represent a sudden shift in Iran's position.
"I didn't change my decision suddenly. From the beginning, I didn't want to have any confrontation. We wanted our rights," he said. "The British government behaved badly, and it took longer."
He said no concessions had been offered by the British government in exchange for the release, but contended that British officials had assured Iran there would be no future incursions into Iranian territory.
"Nothing specifically was done by the United Kingdom. The UK government has sent a note, a memo, to the ministry of foreign affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and in that letter they mentioned that incident would not be repeated," the president said. "Of course, that decision that we are going to release the 15 British sailors is not related to that letter, and it was a gift from the Iranian people to the British people."
A Foreign Office spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he "certainly could not confirm" that Britain offered any pledge not to "repeat" the incident.
Ahmadinejad's announcement came after the Iranian president had spent more than an hour of a scheduled news conference deploring historical Western transgressions against Iran, the plight of the Palestinians, the grim history of Iran's war with Iraq, and the actions of the British sailors who "invaded" the territory of Iran.
"I express my admiration for the commander who managed to capture these people who came to our border. I want to thank him for his bravery," said the president as he pinned medals on the chests of three Border Guards officers. Moments later, he announced the release of the captives.
Almost immediately, the captives were shown in gray suits, smiling and shaking hands with Ahmadinejad, who jokingly referred to their "mandatory vacation" in Iran.
It was a far different scene than in previous days, when Iranian television broadcast images of detainees, in uniform, saying they had strayed into Iranian waters.
In Britain, there were immediate celebrations. "It's been a long two weeks," said John Tindall, father of 21-year-old marine Joe Tindall. "My wife particularly, it's been hard on her, but she's probably cried twice as much today as she has the past two weeks."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was "glad" of the release, which he said would come as a "profound relief" to the families of the detainees.
"Throughout, we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating, but not confronting either," Blair said.