Iran to free sailors as 'gift' to British people

British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed Iran's decision to free 15 British sailors and marines after a 13-day standoff and said Britain bears "no ill will" toward the Iranian people.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says he will free the 15 British sailors and marines detained in the Persian Gulf last month, ending a tense 13-day standoff between Tehran and London.

British navy personnel, seized by Iran, wave to the media after their meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the presidential palace in Tehran on Wednesday. ((Associated Press))

During a news conference Wednesday, Ahmadinejad made the surprising announcement that he had pardoned the crew, which will be leaving Tehran by plane on Thursday, according to Iranian state television.

"On the occasion of the birthday of the great Prophet (Muhammad) … and for the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people —with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial — forgave those 15," Ahmadinejad said, referring to the Muslim Prophet's birthday and the Easter season.

"This pardon is a gift to the British people," he said.

Ahmadinejad said that even though he had everyright to put them on trial,the one woman and 14 men would be forgiven andreleased as "a gift to the British people."

Following the announcement, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain bears "no ill will" toward the Iranian people and respects Iran as an ancient civilization and as a nation with a proud history.

"The disagreements that we have with your government, we wish to resolve peacefully through dialogue," he said in London."I hope, as I've always hoped, that in the future, we are able to do so."

"Throughout we have taken a measured approach," Blair said."Firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting either."

Ahmadinejad was shown on Iranian television meeting with some of the British sailors and marines — who weredressed in suits — at the presidential palace where he shook hands and chatted with them.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives a medal of honour in Tehran to Abolqasem Amangah, an Iranian commander who was among those who intercepted the 15 U.K. sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf. ((Vahid Salemi/Associated Press))

"We're very grateful for your forgiveness," one sailor said toAhmadinejad. "We'd like to thank yourself and the Iranian people."

The leader responded, through an interpreter,by wishing him luck.

Anothersailor asked why they were being released, and Ahmadinejad responded that it was because of the birthday of Muhammad.

"Your people have been very kind to us and I appreciate that very much," the sailor said.

Criticizes Britain for sending woman

At one point in his lengthy news conference, Ahmadinejad awarded a medal of honour to the commanderof theIranian coast guard who intercepted the sailors and marines, praising the crew for defending the country.

Ahmadinejad said he was sorry that the sailors and marines had been arrested, and he criticized Britain for sendingFaye Turney, one of the 15 detainees, into the Gulf, pointing out that she is a woman with a child.

"How can you justify seeing a mother away from her home, her children? Why don't they respect family values in the West?" he asked of the British government.

Ahmadinejad asked Blairnotto putthe sailors ontrialfor admitting they had crossed into Iranian waters. Some of the sailors were shown on video admitting they had entered Iranian waters while on patrol in the northern Persian Gulf on March 23.

The U.S. and Britain have said the Royal Navy crew was in the Iraqi part of the Shaat al Arab waterway — a border that has historically been disputed between Iraq and Iran.