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15 Brits Heading Home From Iran

Fifteen British sailors and marines who were held captive in Iran are on their way home. The jet carrying the sailors and marines left Tehran for London at about 8:30 a.m. local time (1 a.m. EDT).

The fourteen men and one woman, who were captured March 23rd when Iran claimed the British were in Iranian waters, boarded the plane at a Tehran airport early Thursday after other passengers had taken their seats.

The fifteen British citizens arrived at the Tehran airport about a half hour earlier, in a convoy of sedans that drove directly to the presidential VIP section of the airport.

The convoy was escorted by several cars belonging to Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards. British ambassador to Iran, Geoffrey Adams, who was at the airport, declined to comment.

Before boarding, the sailors received gifts given to them on Ahmadinejad's behalf, Iran's state-run news agency, IRNA, reported.

The 15 British sailors and marines received handicrafts, books, pistachio nuts, a Persian sweet called "gaz" and a vase as gifts, the Islamic Republic News Agency said.

According to IRNA, the British sailors and marines spoke a few words and phrases of Farsi that they had learned during their 13 days in captivity, thanking the Iranian leadership for releasing them.

The release of the British sailors and Marines came after a Wednesday surprise announcement by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who called his decision an Easter gift to the British people.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said Wednesday that the Britons had been released, added that he bears "no ill will" toward the Iranian people following the 13-day standoff.

The breakthrough eased tensions that have been increasing steadily, raising fears of military conflict in the volatile region and prompting a spike in oil prices. It suggested that Iran's hard-line leadership had decided Tehran had demonstrated its strength in the standoff but did not want to push the crisis too far.

However, Iran did not get the main thing it sought a public apology for entering Iranian waters. Britain, which said its crew was in Iraqi waters when seized, insists it never offered a quid pro quo, either, instead relying on quiet diplomacy.

Three of the 15 British sailors thanked Ahmadinejad for freeing them in brief interviews broadcast late Wednesday on Iran's state IRIB 2 television channel.

Lt. Felix Carman was the first to speak of the three, shown seated on a couch. "I can understand why you're insulted by the intrusion into the waters," Carman said. "I'd like to see that no harm is done to the Iranian people and its territories whatsoever and I hope that this experience will help to build the relationship between our countries."

Leading Seaman Faye Turney said they were treated well but that "it would be nice to get back, get home and see my family," and added that she wanted to "apologize for our actions, but many thanks for having it in your hearts to let us go free."

Iran's official news agency said the British crew was to leave Iran by plane on Thursday at 8 a.m. However, by Wednesday evening they had still not been handed over to the British Embassy in Tehran and the embassy said it was not clear where they would spend the night. A spokesman for Blair would only say "the process is under way."

Iranian state television showed the 14 men and one woman meeting with Ahmadinejad outside the presidential palace following his announcement at a news conference that they were being freed. The crew members were seized while on patrol in the northern Persian Gulf on March 23, would leave Iran on Thursday.

At the news conference, Ahmadinejad pinned a medal on the chest of the Iranian coast guard commander who intercepted the sailors and marines, then made the dramatic announcement.

"On the occasion of the birthday of the great prophet (Muhammad) ... and for the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people — with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial — forgave those 15," he said, referring to the Muslim prophet's birthday on March 30 and the Easter holiday.

"This pardon is a gift to the British people," he said.

The release "was Iran's way of taking control of the crisis and an effort to make the point that they were taking the high ground," says CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk. But first, Ahmadinejad delivered "a speech that was a recitation of Iran's case against the West, including U.S. and British support for Saddam Hussein against Iran, his criticism of the U.N. Security Council and Iran's right to have peaceful nuclear programs."

The standoff between London and Tehran began when the crew was seized as it searched for smugglers off the Iraqi coast.

U.S. Navy officers privately call the performance of the British Navy a disgrace, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin.

Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy criticized the British Navy's actions during the capture and also the conduct of the sailors in captivity.

"They didn't appear to have any particular military discipline while under arrest," Henderson said.

Britain denied Iranian claims the crew had entered Iranian waters.

"I'm glad that our 15 service personnel have been released, and I know their release will come as a relief not just to them but to their families," Blair said outside his No. 10 Downing St. office. "Throughout, we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting, either."

Blair added, "To the Iranian people, I would simply say this: We bear you no ill will."

The White House said President Bush welcomed the Iranian statement on the planned hostage release, and that the U.S. is closely monitoring the unfolding developments in Tehran, reports CBS News correspondent Peter Maer.

However, Martin doesn't think the release will have much impact on U.S.-Iranian relations.

"The U.S. still is insisting that Iran has to give up its nuclear enrichment program, and the U.S. is still complaining that Iran is meddling in Iraq, and specifically, meddling in a way that results in the deaths of U.S. soldiers," Martin says.

Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC News the case was "one of those events that should not have happened."

"I think the Iranians were wrong to capture the sailors, and it's good now that they have been released," Cheney said. He said he did not know of any quid pro quo deals in the Britons' case, adding that it was important not to reward "that kind of behavior."

Blair thanked British allies in Europe, the U.N. Security Council and in the Middle East for their help in securing the freedom of the Royal Navy personnel.

Syria's information and foreign ministers said Damascus had played a key role.

"Syria exercised a sort of quiet diplomacy to solve this problem and encourage dialogue between the two parties," Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem said.

After Ahmadinejad's news conference, state television showed him meeting with the British crew, who were dressed in business suits, outside the presidential palace. He shook hands and chatted with them through a translator, and a caption to the video said the meeting was taking place as part of the "process of release."

"We appreciate it. Your people have been really kind to us, and we appreciate it very much," one of the crew could be heard telling Ahmadinejad in English.

Another said: "We are grateful for your forgiveness."

Ahmadinejad responded in Farsi, "You are welcome."

Among the crew at the palace was sailor Faye Turney, the sole woman among the captives, wearing a blue jacket and floral-patterned blue and white headscarf.

Iranian TV said the British captives had watched Ahmadinejad's news conference live and were ecstatic when a translator told them what the president had said.

British Defense Secretary Des Browne said they had acted with dignity during their captivity.

"It is vital that we get them back home quickly and safely so they can be reunited with their families and loved ones — that is our priority now," he said.

Recent days saw talk of direct negotiations between Britain and Iran, and a decrease in tensions that had risen after Iran broadcast videos in which Turney and the others "confessed" to violating Iranian territorial waters, and Britain expressed outrage.

Ahmadinejad said London had sent a letter to the Iranian Foreign Ministry pledging that entering Iranian waters "will not happen again."

The British Foreign Office responded: "We haven't gone into detail of what was in the note. But we have said all along we made our position clear (about being in Iraqi waters)."

Before announcing the Britons would be freed, Ahmadinejad told reporters that Iran will never accept trespassing in its territory.

"On behalf of the great Iranian people, I want to thank the Iranian coast guard who courageously defended and captured those who violated their territorial waters," he said in awarding a medal to the coast guard commander.

"We are sorry that British troops remain in Iraq and their sailors are being arrested in Iran," Ahmadinejad said.

Ahmadinejad asked Blair not to "punish" the crew for confessing that they had been in Iranian waters when they were seized. Iran broadcast video of some of them giving confessions, angering Britain.

He also criticized Britain for deploying Turney in the Gulf.

"How can you justify seeing a mother away from her home, her children? Why don't they respect family values in the West?" he asked.

Ahmadinejad's announcement came after Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that an Iranian envoy would be allowed to meet five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq. Another Iranian diplomat, separately seized two months ago by uniformed gunmen in Iraq, was released and returned Tuesday to Tehran.

A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said, however, that American authorities are still considering the request. The spokesman, Maj. Gen. William C. Caldwell, said an international Red Cross team, including an Iranian, had visited the prisoners but he did not say when.

Iran has denied it seized the Britons to force the release of Iranians held in Iraq, and Britain has steadfastly insisted it would not negotiate.

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