The HMS Cornwall
15 British sailors and marines who had boarded a merchant ship in Iraqi waters conducting a routine ship search have been seized at gunpoint and taken captive by the Iranian navy.
The sailors and marines were off of the HMS Cornwall, a Type 22 frigate that was part of the multinational task force that patrols the Gulf.
The Cornwall's commander, Commodore Nick Lambert, said the frigate lost communication with the boarding party, but a helicopter crew saw the Iranian vessels approach.
"I've got 15 sailors and marines who have been arrested by the Iranians and my immediate concern is their safety," Lambert told BBC TV.
The sailors and Marines were in inflatable boats called RIBS and had completed a successful inspection of one ship, reportedly a dhow, when the group and their two boats were surrounded by Iranian patrol boats and taken into Iranian territory.
The seizure took place in the Shatt Al Arab waterway in Iraqi territorial waters of the Persian Gulf.
The Iranian boats carry bow-mounted machine guns, while the British boarding party carried only sidearms. According to Commander Kevin Aandahl of the British Fifth Fleet,no shots were fired and there appeared to be no physical harm done to any personnel involved or their vessels, Aandahl said.
The British Government is demanding the immediate release of the men and their equipment. Unlike the US, Britain has diplomatic relations with Iran and the Iranian ambassador in London, Rasoul Movahedian was later summoned to the Foreign Office to discuss the incident in a meeting which was described as "brisk but cordial."
This timing of this incident is fairly interesting.
The Iranians are in the midst of a fresh round of war games in the Gulf, and obviously wanted to send a message to Britain prior to the scheduled UN vote on fresh sanctions against Iran. Just before the British sailors were seized, UK commanders in Basra accused Iran of being behind 90% of the violence in South Iraq.
The seizure of the sailors also took place against a backdrop of an unprecedented and surprise rendezvous between American and French naval forces in the Gulf, which occurred yesterday.
The French nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle and its task force rendezvoused with the USS John C. Stennis and its task force in the Arabian Sea Wednesday for what were described as ` joint missions in the global war on terror'. The Charles de Gaulle has a contingent of Rafale fighter-bombers and will reportedly will fly missions over Afghanistan alongside US warplanes.
The French task force is led by Rear Adm. Xavier Magne and consists of five warships along with the Charles deGaulle - the FNS Cassard guided missile destroyer, the FNS Tourville anti-submarine frigate, the FNS Dupleix destroyer adapted for escorting oil tankers and the FNS Marne, a command and supply vessel.
Its arrival augments the US naval buildup in the Persian Gulf I've reported about previously, and raises to three the number of Western aircraft carriers cruising within striking distance of Iran, including the USS Eisenhower.And that doesn't include the USS Boxer amphibious assault task force, also in the Gulf.
Could this be the lead in to Operation Mullah Stomp?
The Iranians were obviously surprised at this development, timed to occur before the UN debate on sanctions next week. They probably assumed that the French were against the tough US stance on Iran's nuclear weapons program.
It may be that French president Jacques Chirac has decided before he leaves office in May to repair some of the damage done to the relationship between the US and France.
In any event, the seizure of the British sailors and marines has to be seen as an Iranian attempt to `play tough' against the backdrop of these developments.
This was simply a message, and I'll be surprised if the Brits aren't returned unharmed in a couple of days.
Blogpal Canker has a good take on this from across the pond...