By Sophie Walker LONDON, Reuters
Britain sought international help to isolate Iran on Thursday in a standoff over the capture of 15 military personnel in the Gulf and Iran responded by putting off the release of a woman captive.
The six-day-old dispute has stoked Middle East tensions, already heightened over concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and sent tremors through the oil market.
Britain insists its 15 sailors and marines were seized last week in Iraqi waters and has published what it says is proof from a global positioning system readout.
London is seeking backing from the U.N. Security Council which is expected to sign off on a statement on Thursday which will “deplore” Iran’s action and call for the Britons’ immediate release, a foreign office official said.
Government sources said Britain would discuss practical measures at an EU foreign ministers’ meeting this weekend.
An Iranian naval official was quoted by IRNA news agency as saying the Britons’ boats entered Iranian territory several times before they were seized and Iran had film to prove it.
“The release of a female British soldier has been suspended,” Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted military commander Alireza Afshar as saying. “The wrong behavior of those who live in London caused the suspension.”
Afshar said Britain must apologize for entering Iran’s waters and promise it would not happen again. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s official spokesman said Britain was not seeking a confrontation with Iran and wanted the standoff resolved as quickly as possible.
“With the excuse of controlling ships that go to Iraq, they want to make it a norm to violate other countries’ sovereignty,” Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said on state television.
“But they should know that the cost of this is not cheap.”
Oil prices remained near six-month highs on concerns that any escalation could hit oil supplies from the Gulf.
The United Nations hit Iran with sanctions at the weekend over its nuclear program which Tehran insists is aimed purely at power production. Washington and London also blame Iran for backing insurgents battling their forces in Iraq.
The United States has this week been conducting its biggest exercises in Gulf waters for four years, prompting the Russian foreign minister to caution Washington against aggravating the situation in the region.