BLAIR THREATENS IRAN – as US battlegroups move into position

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PM BLAIR yesterday threatened that if the 15 Royal Navy personnel held by Iran for trespassing in Iranian waters are not released soon, things will enter a ‘different phase’.

He told a press conference: ‘What we are trying to do at the moment is to pursue this through the diplomatic channels and make the Iranian government understand that these people have to be released and that there is absolutely no justification whatever for holding them and I hope we manage to get them to realise they have to release them.

‘If not then this will move into a different phase but at the moment what we are trying to do is make sure that this diplomatic initiative works.’

Referring to speculation that the capture was linked to the seizure of five Iranians by US forces in Iraq, Blair alleged that the situations were ‘completely distinct’ as any Iranian forces inside Iraq were breaching a UN mandate.

‘In the end, it is a question really for the Iranian government as to whether they want to abide by international law or not,’ he said.

An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said those held were in good health and being treated in a humane fashion.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said the UK was still pressing for consular access to the service personnel.

‘If indeed they are being detained in reasonable circumstances then we can see no reason why they should not have contact with people from the British government,’ Beckett said.

The US Navy began massive exercises just off the coast of Iran yesterday, involving more than 10,000 US personnel.

The Fifth Fleet manoeuvres involve two strike groups of US warships and over 100 aircraft, simulating air warfare in and above the crowded Gulf shipping lanes.

The exercises centre on the giant aircraft carriers USS John C Stennis and the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, marking the first time that the two strike groups have operated in a joint exercise under the Fifth Fleet. 

The Fifth Fleet has nuclear weapons and a large number of ships capable of firing Cruise missiles