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UK-Iran diplomatic contacts under way

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NEW: Britain awaits Iranian response on direct talks, Blair spokeswoman says
• Britain must admit its personnel trespassed into Iranian waters, Larijani says
• Britain insists sailors, marines were inside Iraqi waters
• Iran releases new images of British detainees
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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Diplomatic contacts between Britain and Iran, including moves by Iranian official Ali Larijani, were under way to secure the release of 15 British marines and sailors in Iranian custody, Downing Street confirmed.

"The prime minister remains committed to resolving this by diplomatic means," a spokeswoman for British Prime Minister Tony Blair said. "The UK has proposed direct bilateral discussions and awaits an Iranian response on when these can begin."

Blair has described the next two days as being "fairly critical," according to his Web site.

Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security, earlier told Iranian state TV on Tuesday that the two countries' foreign ministries have held talks about the standoff for the first time. (Watch how tempers have cooled in diplomatic dispute Video)

Blair told Glasgow-based Real Radio he was encouraged by Larijani's comments Monday, in which he said Iran saw "no need" to put the Britons on trial and that the dispute could be resolved diplomatically.

"I've read the transcripts of the interview Ali Larijani gave and that seems to offer some prospect," Blair told the Scottish radio station, according to a news release on his Web site.

"But the most important thing is to get these people back."

To resolve the impasse, Larijani said in an interview with Britain's Channel 4 television Britain must admit that its military personnel intruded into Iranian territorial waters and "guarantee this violation would not be committed again."

Britain insists that the sailors and marines were well inside Iraqi waters when Iran captured them on March 23.

In addition to demanding their release, Britain also wants consular access to the detainees, whose location is unknown.

Iran has released several videos showing the 14 men and one woman, and they appear to be in good condition. Iran also released videotaped confessions from four of the sailors -- including the woman, Faye Turney. (Watch the two crew members describe their 'intrusion' Video)

Britain said the confessions were coerced and expressed its outrage at the videos' release.

The newest images, published Tuesday by the Iranian news agency Fars, show crew members talking in a group and playing a game. It was not immediately clear if new stills were a breach of Tehran's earlier suggestion that no more images would be published.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, a top Iranian diplomat seized by gunmen two months ago was released Tuesday, according to an Iranian state-run media report, citing a source familiar with the case. (Full story)

Jalal Sharafi, deputy secretary of the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, is expected to return to Tehran later in the day, IRNA reported.

He was abducted on February 4 in front of a branch of the Iranian state-owned Bank Melli.

Journalist Shirzad Bozorgmehr contributed to this report


Seized British sailors and marines are shown in new images published by Iranian news agency Fars on Tuesday.



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