BRITAIN'S crisis with Iran deepened last night after Iran's Foreign Minister accused a group of captured British servicemen of committing an act of "aggression", only hours after Tony Blair appealed for their release.
"The charge against them is their illegal entrance into Iranian territorial waters," Manouchehr Mottaki, the Foreign Minister, told a press conference in New York.
In a telephone conversation with Mr Mottaki last night Margaret Beckett, the Foreign Secretary, "made extremely clear our view that our personnel were operating in Iraqi waters, called for their immediate return, and asked for immediate consular access to them", a spokesman said.
But Mr Mottaki told the conference that Iran had already provided British officials with details, including GPS coordinates, of the servicemen's arrest. The British Ambassador to Tehran was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to explain why 15 service personnel in two inflatable boats had strayed into Iranian territorial waters.
"The Iranian authorities intercepted these sailors and Marines in Iranian waters and detained them in Iranian waters. This has happened in the past as well. In terms of legal issues, it's under investigation," Mr Mottaki said.
His comments were seen as a direct rebuff to the Prime Minister, who only hours earlier had called the seizure of the British servicemen "unjustified and wrong" and demanded their release.
"This is a very serious situation and there is no doubt at all that these people were taken from a boat in Iraqi waters," Mr Blair said.
"It is simply not true that they went into Iranian territorial waters and I hope the Iranian Government understands how fundamental an issue this is for us. We have certainly sent these messages back to them very clearly indeed. They should not be in any doubt over how seriously we take this act, which was unjustified and wrong."
So far the Iranians have refused to give any details about their fate, other than to say that they are being well treated. General Ali Reza Afshar, Iran's armed forces spokesman, said that they had been taken to Tehran for questioning and that they had "confessed" to an "aggression into the Islamic Republic of Iran's waters".