Nearly two weeks after Iran captured 15 British sailors it claimed had crossed illegally into Iranian territory, president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that they have been pardoned and will be released.
The president made the surprise announcement nearly 45 minutes into a press conference Wednesday, after praising the border guards who captured the Britons and awarding the Iranian troops a bravery medal for their actions.
"I announce their freedom and their return to their people," Ahmadinejad said, calling the release a "gift" to the British people. "They will be free after our meeting. They will go to the airport and will join their families."
After weeks of tension between Britain and Iran over the March 23 incident — in which Britain strongly denied its sailors had crossed illegally into Iranian territory — the peaceful ending to the crisis came after what was described as intense negotiations, but without a clear explanation of what may have precipitated the incident or how it was finally resolved.
"Our government has pardoned them, it is a gift from our people," Ahmadinejad said, denying that the release had anything to do with ongoing negotiations over the freeing of five Iranian diplomats who have been held by American forces in Iraq since January. "It has nothing to do with this analysis. If we were to move forward on that basis, things would have looked different. We approached the subject on a humanitarian basis. It was a unilateral decision on our end."
Surprisingly, Ahmadinejad did not ask for a British apology over the incident, but instead took the opportunity to taunt British authorities by saying that he didn't think they were brave enough to do so, then requesting that British Prime Minister Tony Blair not put the 14 men and one woman on trial for "speaking the truth."
While in captivity, some of the British soldiers were seen on videotape appearing to admit to trespassing and asking their government to do the same. During the 13-day standoff, British authorities stressed that the soldiers were searching for smugglers off the Iraqi coast and had not entered Iranian territorial waters.
An hour after the press conference began, footage was released of a smiling Ahmadinejad meeting with one of the sailors, shaking his hand and wishing him well as the Britons awaited transport to the British embassy. Both Blair and President Bush said through spokespeople that they welcomed the news of the peaceful resolution of the crisis.
According to Reuters, an Iranian source reported that the British soldiers would leave Iran on Thursday.