US Navy sailors detained by Iran to be released on Wednesday: US official

US Navy riverine patrol boats.
US Navy riverine patrol boats. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (REUTERS) -  Plans are in place for Iran to return 10 US sailors to a US Navy vessel in international waters early Wednesday (Jan 13), after they were taken into custody while travelling from Kuwait to Bahrain, a US defence official said late Tuesday.  

The official said it was deemed safer to carry out the exchange in daylight. The plans call for Iran to bring the sailors to international waters, where they will be transferred to a vessel from the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Iran had assured the US government that the sailors were being treated well and there were no injuries, the official added.

It was not immediately clear what would happen with the two riverine patrol boats that the sailors – nine men and one woman - were on when they were detained by Iran.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in a statement early Wednesday confirmed they had seized two American boats and 10 sailors in “Iranian territory” near the Farsi island in the Gulf.

“At 16:30 Tuesday (9pm Singapore time), two American combat boats carrying 10 armed marines who had entered Iranian territory were seized by the combat units of the Guards naval force and moved to Farsi island,” an official statement said.  

“Passengers of the American boats, including nine men and one woman, (are being treated) with the Islamic conduct customary of the soldiers of the Guards naval forces, and they are in good health and being kept in a proper location,” it added.  

Two aircraft carriers – the USS Harry S. Truman and France’s Charles de Gaulle – were both in international waters near Farsi island when the US boats were captured, the statement said.

The Iranian Fars news agency, which is close to the Guards, reported that the “violating boats were 2km inside Iranian territory”.  

“This information was recorded on their GPS devices, and the Guards have got hold of that information,” it said.   

While both sides appeared eager not to let the incident escalate further, it came at a delicate time for US-Iranian relations.  Iran and six world powers forged a landmark nuclear accord last July. Formal implementation of the accord could begin in days following steps Iran agreed to take to curb its nuclear activities.

News of the incident broke as US President Barack Obama prepared to make his final State of the Union address to the US Congress. Mr Obama, a Democrat, made the Iran accord a centrepiece of his foreign policy, and Republicans vying to succeed him have assailed him over the deal. Americans elect a new president on Nov 8.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said: “The Revolutionary Guards naval forces seized the American boats 2km inside Iranian territorial waters while they were snooping around.”  

Officials from Iran and the United States are negotiating to free the crew, Fars reported. US defence officials said nine men and one woman were aboard the two vessels seized.  

A senior US defense official said the United States had lost contact earlier in the day with two small craft en route from Kuwait to Bahrain.

Another US official said mechanical issues may have disabled one of the boats, leading to a situation in which both ships drifted inadvertently into Iranian waters. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif assured US Secretary of State John Kerry that the US sailors would be allowed to continue their journey promptly, another US official said.

SAILORS SAID TO BE SAFE

In a statement, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confirmed it seized the boats and said the sailors were safe and well. It said France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier was near the seized US boats.

They were on board two riverine patrol boats, one of the officials said. Riverine boats are 38-foot long, high-speed patrol boats used by the US Navy and Marines to patrol rivers and littoral waters.

It was the latest reported incident between US and Iranian forces in the Gulf in recent weeks. The US Navy said late last month that an Iranian Revolutionary Guards vessel fired unguided rockets on Dec 26 near warships including the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran denied the vessel had done so.

Previous Iranian seizures involved British sailors and marines.  In June 2004, Iran arrested six Royal Marines and two naval personnel – part of a US-led force in Iraq – for straying into its waters, stirring diplomatic tensions between the two. Following negotiations the eight were freed three days later.

In March 2007, Iranian forces seized 15 British servicemen - eight Royal Navy sailors and seven marines – in the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab waterway that separates Iran and Iraq, triggering a diplomatic crisis at a time of heightened tensions over Teheran’s nuclear ambitions. They were held for 13 days.

In November 2009, Iranian naval vessels detained five Britons on a racing yacht en route from Bahrain to Dubai. They were released a week later.