HL Deb 05 July 2004 vol 663 cc23-4WS
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach):

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Geoffrey Hoon) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 21 June a Royal Navy training team consisting of eight personnel and three small boats was detained by the Iranian authorities on the Shatt al Arab waterway near the southern extremity of the Al Faw peninsula. The team was conducting a routine boat movement from Umm Qasr to Basra. The initial assessment, reflected in statements by a British Army spokesman in Basra and the British Ambassador in Tehran, was that these Service personnel could have strayed into Iranian waters by mistake.

Our first priority was for the safe return of the personnel. Discussions with the Iranian authorities secured the release of the eight on 25 June. They were immediately returned to the Multi-National Division South-East, where they underwent a medical assessment and debriefing to establish their perspective of the incident. Since then, two of the team have returned home because their tour of duty has come to an end; another returned home today for medical reasons associated with the incident. The remainder of the team continues to work in Iraq.

We are continuing with negotiations for the return of the boats and equipment. The deadline set for their return passed yesterday. The equipment consists of personal weapons, ammunition, radios and navigation equipment including echo sounders (to measure the depth of the water), global positioning systems (to identify exact position) and up-to-date maritime charts.

I would like to reassure the House that British personnel are trained to observe the normal rules of maritime navigation and are issued with modern charts and equipment. This should be sufficient to prevent inadvertent digressions across the border and we are not aware of any previous allegations that the border has been violated.

In recent more detailed debriefing the crews have said that they were operating inside the Iraqi border and were forcibly escorted into Iranian territorial waters. Our assessment continues, and will be greatly assisted by the retrieval of navigational information in the global positioning system equipment carried by the crews. We are very concerned about the blindfolding of the men and have made representations about this to the Government of Iran. We have also made it clear that we do not expect a recurrence of this type of incident.