BY DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT CATHERINE PHILIP and ED GORMAN
The London Times
Diplomatic tension between Britain and Iran deepened Monday with the news that Tehran is holding five British sailors after their yacht apparently strayed into Iranian waters.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that the crew members were taken from their yacht Kingdom of Bahrain on November 25 after she was stopped by Iranian naval vessels while sailing from Bahrain to Dubai.
Sources named the five Britons as Oliver Smith, 31, an experienced sailor from Southampton, as well as Sam Usher, Oliver Young, 21, from Saltash in Cornwall, Luke Porter, 21, from Weston-super-Mare and Dave Bloomer, a presenter on Radio Bahrain. Mr Porter is reported to have spoken to his father Charles yesterday.
Charles Porter, 48, said: “He said he was in good spirits and he said he was being well looked after”. His son told him the yacht had strayed 500 yards into Iranian waters near the island of Sirri.
The Britons were delivering the yacht to the annual Dubai to Muscat race, a 360-mile voyage through the Straits of Hormuz scheduled to begin the following day.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, said that the Foreign Office had been in touch with its Iranian counterparts for nearly a week. “I hope this issue will soon be resolved,” he said. Iran’s Foreign Ministry said that it would issue a statement about the affair today.
The seized yacht, a 60ft Volvo, is owned by Sail Bahrain, a personal project of King Hamad of Bahrain to promote his country’s seafaring ancestry. It had only recently arrived from Southampton and was competing in Sail Bahrain’s first offshore race.
Sail Bahrain is backed by Team Pindar, a British yacht-racing team led by the Scarborough businessman Andrew Pindar, whose family owns Britain’s largest independent printers.
Team Pindar said last night: “On November 25, Sail Bahrain’s Kingdom of Bahrain … racing yacht was stopped by Iranian navy vessels, as it was making its way from Bahrain to the start of the Dubai-Muscat Offshore Sailing Race.
“The boat may have strayed inadvertently into Iranian waters. The five crew members, all British nationals, are still in Iran. All are understood to be safe and well and their families have been informed.”
Mark Turner the chief executive of the leading Cowes-based sail racing company OC Group, who is familiar with sailing in the Gulf, told The Times Monday night that the sailors on the Kingdom of Bahrain appeared to have been boarded twice by the Iranians. The first time they were allowed to go on their way; the second time they were detained.
Mr Turner said he had been informed that the crew had drifted in windless conditions into Iranian waters last Wednesday. They were then boarded by Iranian security forces who confiscated the yacht’s navigation computers. Once the Iranians were satisfied that the computers were harmless, they were returned to the boat and the crew was told they were free to go.
At this point the sailors, who are described as “delivery crew” and do not include any well known British racing yachtsmen, tried to start the boat’s engine but it broke down and they continued to drift on a flat sea.
They were reported to have made contact with a shipping company in Dubai to try to arrange a tow but, before this was organised, the Iranians seem to have had a change of heart and re-boarded the yacht and seized it.
Although the precise sequence of events remains unclear, it appears that the original decision by the Iranians to let the yacht continue on its passage to Dubai may have been overruled after its diplomatic value to Iran had been assessed.
The incident sparked memories of the capture in 2007 of 15 British sailors and Marines from HMS Cornwall. They were detained in Iran for two weeks under disputed circumstances before their release.
Iran charged them with trespassing in its waters, and televised apologies by some of the crew. All were eventually freed despite Britain’s refusal to apologise for their alleged trespass. Britain maintains that they were inside Iraqi waters at the time of their capture, patrolling the maritime border under a United Nations mandate.
The news comes at a time of renewed tensions between Iran and Britain over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, on which Britain has taken a hard line. Iran also accuses Britain of fomenting the public unrest after President Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in June. Last month an Iranian worker at the British Embassy in Tehran was sentenced to four years in prison for alleged spying and orchestrating the protests on behalf of the British Government.
Iran has shown little tolerance for either civilian or military citizens of any unfriendly countries that mistakenly enter its territory. Three American hikers are in detention after straying over the border with Iraq several months ago.
Iran and Bahrain have long had an uneasy relationship, with recent tensions flaring over Iranian claims to the tiny Western-allied nation.
Snatched in Iran
444 days. In November 1979 Iranian students seized 63 hostages at the US Embassy in Tehran, demanding that the Shah return from America to face trial. A rescue mission ended in disaster and led to the demise of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The last 52 hostages were freed on January 20, 1981, hours after Carter left office. They had been held for 444 days
122 days. Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, all Americans, were charged with espionage after straying into Iran from northern Iraq on July 31 this year. Their families say they were hiking and crossed the border accidentally. Espionage carries a possible death sentence in Iran. They have been held for 122 days
100 days. The US/Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi was sentenced to eight years in jail this year on espionage charges and working for a “hostile state” after a trial lasting 15 minutes. An appeal court overturned this conviction on the ground that the United States and Iran could not be defined as hostile towards each other. She was detained for 100 days
12 days. In 2007 15 British sailors and Royal Marines aboard the HMS Cornwall were surrounded, arrested and taken prisoner by the navy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Iran claimed that the British had strayed into its territorial waters; Britain said that the ship was always in Iraqi waters. The British personnel were freed after 12 days
3 days. In 2004 six Marines and two sailors were seized by Iran in the same area. The captured personnel appeared on Iranian television blindfolded but were released after Iran said that they had mistakenly crossed into its waters. Their ordeal lasted three days
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