The 15 British sailors and marines held captive in Iran for nearly two weeks finally embraced their families on home soil Thursday, descending from two Sea King helicopters at the Chivenor airfield.


British service personnel prepare to board a military helicopter at London's Heathrow Airport Thursday following 13 days of captivity in Iran. ((Alastair Grant/Associated Press))

Loved ones waited inside the Royal Military Base as the crew members from HMS Cornwall greeted a formal reception line. Aerial footage later showed relatives celebrating the homecoming below as photographers snapped pictures.

The freedpersonnel — 14 males and one female — arrived in their home country shortly after noon when their business-class flight touched down at London's Heathrow Airport.

Before landing, all the crew had changed into their fatigues and Royal Navy uniforms from the business suits donated to them by the Iranian government.

They stood on the tarmac at Heathrow, grinning during a brief photo-op, then clutched their duffel bags and boarded the awaiting helicopters for a one-hour journey to Chivenor military base in Devon, 322 kilometres southwest of London.

At the base, they are expected to undergo hours or perhaps days of debriefing. The military will want to know what kind of information the British crew may have divulged to the Iranian government during their time in Iranian custody, as well as what kinds of conditions they lived in.

Release a 'gift' to British people

Over 12 days, the British standoff with Iran escalated into an international crisis that drove up oil prices and sparked fears of a military conflict in the volatile region.

But on Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a surprise announcement, declaring suddenly in the middle of a news conference that he would free the British naval crew as a "gift" to the British people.

Ahmadinejad called his decision a "pardon" that would mark the birthday of the prophet Mohammad and the coming Easter holiday. He added that he had received a letter from Britain pledging that entering Iranian waters "will not happen again."

But that was not so, according to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Emerging from 10 Downing Street in London Thursday, Blair was unequivocal that the release was made "without any deal, any negotiation, any side agreement of any nature."

No public apology from Britain

And Iran did not get the main thing it sought — a public apology from the British government.

Britain has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing on the part of its sailors and marines, sticking by the assertion that the crew was in fact in Iraqi waters when they were seized.

Blair expressed "profound relief" and welcomed the return of the crew on Thursday, but stressed that it was quiet diplomacy, not a quid pro quo deal, that made the release possible.

He also said that while he welcomed the safe return of the servicemen, "we return to the sober and ugly reality of what is happening through terrorism in Iraq, terrorism designed specifically to thwart the will of the international community."

His remarks were a reference to news reports Thursday morning that four British soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Basra in southern Iraq.

Analysts believe Ahmadinejad freed the British sailors and marines on Wednesday at the urging of the Islamic republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who decided the crisis was getting out of hand.

With files from the Associated Press