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Iranian protest targets British Embassy

The Baltimore Sun

TEHRAN, Iran -- More than 150 students pelted the British Embassy here with firecrackers and a smoke grenade yesterday, demanding an apology and the closure of the mission after Iran's detention of 15 British sailors and marines in the northern Persian Gulf.

Shouting slogans such as "Death to Britain" and carrying banners with a call to "finally wipe Israel from the face of the Earth," hard-line Islamist students attempted to scale the embassy walls and pull down the flag but were rebuffed by riot police.

Hours later, two new purported confessions were broadcast on Iranian state television, which aired previously unseen footage of two captured sailors allegedly admitting incursions into Iranian state waters.

Dressed in military uniforms and looking physically healthy and relaxed, the two men stood in front of a large nautical map of the Persian Gulf, speaking as they used a pointer to indicate locations. One smiled as he spoke.

The announcer said the pair confessed to illegally trespassing in Iranian waters about 10 a.m. local time March 23, half an hour before their small boats were surrounded and detained by Iranian military personnel in gunboats.

British officials have protested the airing of such footage, contending it violates international conventions for the treatment of prisoners.

"It is completely unacceptable for these pictures to be shown on television, given the potential to cause distress to their families," the Foreign Office said in a statement last night.

The embassy protest came as British and Iranian officials carried on behind-the-scenes diplomatic contacts over the weekend aimed at defusing the standoff that began when the Britons were taken in disputed waters south of the Shatt al-Arab waterway.

Iran was said to be studying a British diplomatic note sent in response to its own, which reportedly suggested that Britain provide a guarantee that it will not commit any future incursions into Iranian waters. Britain has refused to apologize, insisting its service members were operating in Iraqi waters.

While British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Saturday that she "regretted" the situation, a Foreign Office spokesman insisted it was "not at all" an apology.

"We are anxious that this matter be resolved as quickly as possible, and we are bending every single effort to do that," Defense Minister Des Browne told the British Broadcasting Corp. yesterday. "We are in direct bilateral communications with the Iranians, and they know that not only do we have a very clear position, but we have the support of almost the entire international community."

But Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammed Ali Hosseini, said Iran "has defended its sovereignty and territorial integrity" with the arrest of the 15 Britons and that the statement last week by the European Union criticizing the arrest was unnecessary.

"I regret to say that the European Union has supported the violation of international law by Britain," Hosseini told state television.

Ramin Mostaghim and Kim Murphy write for the Los Angeles Times.

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