March 23 (Bloomberg) -- Iran seized 15 British sailors and Marines who were conducting ``routine boarding operations'' in Iraqi waters, the U.K. Ministry of Defence said.
``The boarding party had completed a successful inspection of a merchant ship when they and their two boats were surrounded and escorted by Iranian vessels into Iranian territorial waters,'' the ministry said in an e-mailed statement. ``We are urgently pursuing this matter with the Iranian authorities at the highest level.''
Iran's foreign ministry confirmed seizing the Britons ``for investigation and questioning'' and said it was because British sailors have illegally entered its own territorial waters ``a number of times,'' Agence France-Presse reported, citing Iranian State television.
Tensions have been rising between Western nations and Iran over its nuclear program, and the Islamic Republic has also been accused by the administrations of U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush of meddling in Iraq.
The seizure of forces occurred in the Persian Gulf at about 10:30 a.m. Iraqi time today, the ministry said. Britain demanded the immediate return of the military personnel and equipment in a meeting today between Peter Ricketts, the permanent under- secretary at the U.K. Foreign Office, and Rasoul Movahedian, the Iranian ambassador in London, the Foreign Office said.
``The meeting with the Iranian ambassador was brisk but polite, but he was left in no doubt that we want them back,'' U.K. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said in a televised statement. ``We have asked for a full explanation on what has happened and we are leaving them in no doubt that we want the immediate and safe return of our personnel and their equipment.''
U.S. Navy in Same Area
Admiral Michael Mullen, chief of U.S. naval operations, said the British sailors were part of the U.S.-led coalition force in Iraq and the U.S. Navy is operating in the same area.
``That is an important part of the Gulf,'' he said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. The area is in ``Iraqi territorial waters where we are operating to support the government.''
``We certainly hope there would be no chance the Iranians would do something like that to us,'' Mullen said. In such an event, ``clearly, we would try to work diplomatically,'' he said.
In Washington, U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman called on the Iranians to ``release the men and the equipment immediately.''
The Iranian Embassy in London didn't respond to telephone messages seeking comment. In Tehran, where today is a public holiday as part of celebrations of the Iranian new year, no one responded to telephone calls to the Defense Ministry or the president's office, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini didn't respond to repeated calls to his mobile phone.
The capture of the troops was ``entirely peaceful'' without any shooting, and the personnel are known to be safe, Commodore Nick Lambert told Sky News in an interview aboard HMS Cornwall, a U.K. naval vessel in the Gulf.
Lambert heads Combined Task Force 158, one of three coalition naval forces patrolling the Gulf to maintain security in Iraq's territorial waters and to protect Iraqi oil terminals. The British personnel were seen by a U.K. helicopter being escorted up the Shatt-al-Arab toward an Iranian base, he said.
The incident comes as the United Nations Security Council prepares to vote on a draft resolution that would freeze the assets of a state-owned Iranian bank and bar some exports from the country in an effort to persuade Iran to suspend its nuclear program. The vote could come tomorrow.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked to address the council ahead of its vote. The U.S. mission at the United Nations has been informed that Ahmadinejad no longer plans to travel to New York, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.
Casey said the U.S. provided visas for Ahmadinejad's entire delegation, including for his crew and security, in time for him to address the Security Council on Saturday.
``Any suggestion that visa issues are the cause of President Ahmadinejad's decision not to travel to New York is false,'' Casey said in an e-mail to reporters.
Iran has defied two UN resolutions demanding a halt to uranium enrichment, which the U.S. and European governments say is intended to produce nuclear arms. Iran says it is pursuing an atomic program solely for civil energy generation.
Crude oil rose after the U.K. Ministry of Defence issued its statement. Some analysts and traders have expressed concern that sanctions or a military campaign against Iran may disrupt oil supplies from the Middle East, the source of about a third of the world's oil.
Crude oil for May delivery rose 58 cents, or 0.9 percent, to $62.27 a barrel at the 2:30 p.m. close of floor trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Futures jumped to $62.65, the highest for a front-month contract since Dec. 26 and the highest for the May contract since March 9.
The Britons seized today are a mix of Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines, a Ministry of Defence spokesman, who declined to be further identified, said today in a telephone interview. He didn't know how many from each branch were taken.
It's not the first time U.K. naval forces have been involved in a dispute with Iran in the region. In June 2004, Iran held eight British servicemen for three days after capturing them and their three vessels in the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which runs along the border between Iran and Iraq.
Iran said at the time the Britons were in Iranian waters and paraded them blindfolded on television, forcing them to make statements apologizing for their ``mistake.'' The U.K. crews said they were escorted forcibly into Iranian waters.
Attacks in Iraq
Iran and Britain have traded accusations about cross-border incursions. Blair in October 2005 said there was evidence to tie Iran to weapons used in bombings against British forces in Iraq. In the same month, Iran accused British agents over two bombings in the province of Khuzestan. British forces in the southern Iraqi city of Basra say that Iran is probably still involved in cross-border violence.
``Iranian agents are paying up to $500 a month for young Basrawi men to attack us,'' Lieutenant Colonel Justin Maciejewski said today in an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio's ``Today'' program, citing local sheikhs and community leaders in Basra. ``We haven't found any smoking gun, so to speak, but certainly all the circumstantial evidence points to Iranian involvement in the violence here in Basra.''
Iran has also expressed grievances about coalition activities in Iraq. The Islamic Republic in January wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, seeking an ``urgent and resolute'' response after U.S. forces entered the Iranian consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil, seizing documents and computers and detaining five Iranians, who remain in custody.
To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at