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Tehran: Britons confessed to entering waters

TEHRAN -- The Iranian military questioned 15 detained British sailors and marines yesterday and said they confessed to illegally entering Iranian waters in an act of "blatant aggression."

Britain has demanded the return of the sailors and marines and denied they had strayed into Iranian waters while searching for smugglers off Iraq's coast.

The eight Royal Navy sailors and seven Royal Marines were brought to Tehran for questioning, and a top military official, General Ali Reza Afshar, said they "confessed to illegal entry."

"The said personnel are being interrogated and have confessed to aggression into the Islamic Republic of Iran's waters," Afshar was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA and the semiofficial ISNA news agency. He did not say what would be done with them.

The British marines and sailors, who included at least one woman, had just searched a merchant ship when they and their two inflatable boats were intercepted by Iranian vessels Friday at around 10:30 a.m. near the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway, US and British officials said. The Iranian vessels surrounded them and escorted them away at gunpoint.

The seizure of the Britons occurred at a time of heightened tensions over Iran's nuclear ambitions and over allegations that Iran is arming Shi'ite Muslim militias in Iraq. Still, Britain was treating it as a mistake rather than a provocation.

In London, the British government summoned the Iranian ambassador for the second time, demanding the safe return of the sailors and Royal Marines.

Lord Triesman, a Foreign Office undersecretary, sought assurances from Rasoul Movahedian about the group's welfare and consular access, the British government said.

The European Union also called for the "immediate liberation" of the captured .

Iranian hard-liners called for the 15 Britons to be held until Iran wins political concessions.

Several conservative student groups have called on the Iranian government not to release them until five Iranians detained by US forces in Iraq earlier this year are freed and UN plans for sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program are canceled. Some 500 Iranian students gathered on the shore near where the Britons were captured, shouting "Death to Britain" and "Death to America," the Fars news agency reported.

The United States has bolstered its naval forces in the Persian Gulf in a show of strength directed at Iran. US officials have expressed concern that with so much military hardware in the Gulf, an incident like Friday's could escalate.