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Iran 'hints British may be freed'
Iranian television showed pictures of the detainees.
Great Britain

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Eight members of the British military arrested for crossing into Iranian waters could be freed "very soon" if it is established they did not have "bad intentions," Iran's student news agency ISNA quoted a top Iranian military official as saying.

The eight -- two sailors and six Marines -- were detained after three British boats crossed into Iran's territorial waters in the Shatt al-Arab waterway, Iran's Foreign Ministry said.

The waterway divides Iran and Iraq and has long been a source of tension between the Gulf neighbors.

The ministry said the Iranian Navy confiscated weapons and maps along with the ships when the vessels were stopped Monday. The crew members were being interrogated, the ministry said.

Iranian media Tuesday also reported that Tehran might put the eight on trial.

"They will be prosecuted for illegally entering Iranian territorial waters," Iran's state-run Arabic language Al-Alam television reported.

"The vessels were 1,000 meters inside Iranian territorial waters. The crew have also confessed to having entered Iranian waters," the broadcast said.

In a contravention of international law, two of the captured men were apparently interviewed on Iranian television. One, who named himself as Marine Sgt. Thomas Hawkins, was heard apologising. A man who identified himself as Chief Petty Officer Robert Webster also was shown.

"The team wrongly entered Iranian waters and we apologize for this mistake because it was a big mistake," the man identified as Hawkins said in comments dubbed into Arabic and shown on Al-Alam television, Reuters reported.

The eight Royal Navy personnel also were shown on Iranian television Tuesday in blindfolds.

A spokesman for the British Foreign Ministry in London said the UK government had not "been told definitively that these people are going to be prosecuted."

"We are in constant contact with the Iranians to get the matter resolved," the spokesman said.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi early Tuesday before reports surfaced that the sailors and Marines might be prosecuted, a UK Foreign Office representative said.

Kharrazi assured Straw that "he will look into it personally," a Foreign Office spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the British government in London summoned Iran's ambassador, demanding the sailors' release.

Officials asked Ambassador Morteza Sarmadi to explain why Iranian guards had arrested the sailors in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway, the Foreign Office said.

"The ambassador was asked to explain why the eight are being held, for their release as soon as possible and for full consular access to them meanwhile," the Foreign Office said in a statement.

"He was asked for information on the reports that they will be prosecuted and told they were on a routine mission."

A British official said Sarmadi had offered no immediate clarification.

"It was a one-way conversation, an opportunity for us to put our concerns across and for him to listen," he told Reuters.

British officials in Iran also were working hard to prevent Monday's arrest from escalating into a diplomatic crisis. Richard Dalton, the British ambassador in Tehran, was trying to resolve the situation with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A Royal Navy patrol boat, similar to the vessels seized, in the Shatt-al-Arab waterway.

The incident was likely to place further strain on London and Tehran after Britain last week joined other key U.N. members in accusing Iran of being uncooperative with the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. (Full story)

The British Ministry of Defense said the eight crew members, based in southern Iraq, were detained by Iran while delivering a boat from Umm Qasr to Basra.

The team members were traveling in three boats, two Boston Whalers and one British Army Combat Support Boat, the ministry said in a written statement.

The boats were unarmed but the crews were carrying personal weapons, the statement said.

"We can confirm that eight Royal Navy personnel from the Royal Navy training team based in southern Iraq have been detained by the Iranian authorities while delivering a boat from Umm Qasr to Basra," a statement from the defense ministry said.

A defense ministry spokesman said the boats are the types used to train the Iraqi river patrol service in the waterway.

Iranian media Tuesday reported that the British boats had entered Iran's territorial waters illegally and had gotten too close to an oil jetty near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

A statement from Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Iran's naval officers had instructions to arrest anyone who illegally crossed into the territory.

Iraq and Iran share the waterway, with their respective borders meeting in the middle. The waterway is Iraq's main link with the Persian Gulf.

The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war broke out when then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein claimed the entire waterway.

CNN stringer Shirzad Bozorgmehr contributed to this report

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