Britain in talks with Tehran's negotiator
There appeared to be a breakthrough last night in the diplomatic impasse between Britain and Iran over the British hostages.
Downing Street confirmed there had been direct talks between Britain and Dr Ali Larijani, of the Iranian Supreme Security Council. Number 10 said that " both sides share a desire for an early resolution" of the crisis. A statement issued by Number 10 said further discussions took place last night and Britain had proposed direct talks between the two countries.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "The Prime Minister remains committed to resolving this [issue] by diplomatic means. The UK has proposed direct bilateral discussions and awaits an Iranian response on when these can begin."
Earlier Mr Larijani told Iranian state radio: "The British government has started some diplomatic talks with the Iranian Foreign Ministry. They are only at the beginning. If they continue this path they can change the situation logically... in such a way that the issue is resolved."
Tony Blair earlier said that the next 48 hours would be "fairly critical " in attempts to secure the release of the British hostages.
The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, cautioned against expectations of a "swift resolution", however, even though she noted that a " huge amount" was going on behind the scenes.
She said that although the Government was continuing to hold talks with the Iranians, it still had not received a response to a first formal note addressed to Tehran. Consular access to the prisoners continues to be denied and the Government has not been informed of their whereabouts.
Senior British diplomatic sources said it was unlikely that any of the 15 captured sailors or marines would be freed before Easter.
The Iranian media produced more images of the British prisoners yesterday, but without any more "confessions" or any of them pointing at maps purporting to show they had trespassed into Iranian waters.
The Foreign Office said it was unclear if the footage was new. Two of the detainees were named as Leading Seaman Chris Coe from Dalton in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, and Seaman Simon Massey.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to hold a news conference today after abruptly cancelling one without explanation. Iran has, meanwhile, signalled its irritation with the involvement of the UN and the EU, warning that it could delay the freeing of the prisoners.
Momentum towards a negotiated settlement appeared to gain pace after Iran's chief negotiator, Ali Larijani, called for a delegation to review the alleged violation of Iranian territory by the Royal Navy team and an assurance that this will not be repeated.
Mrs Beckett also sought to scotch any suggestion that Britain was considering military action after the Prime Minister spoke of " increasingly tougher decisions" if there was no diplomatic resolution.