Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today announced his government would release the 15 detained British sailors and marines as an Easter gift to the British people.
Ahmadinejad said the crew would be taken to Tehran airport for a flight out of Iran at the end of the press conference that he was addressing. But an Iranian diplomat in London said the 15 would be handed over to the British Embassy in Tehran.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair's office said it ``welcomed'' the move. Iranian state television said in a news flash that the 15 British sailors watched Ahmadinejad's press conference live and were ecstatic when a translator told them what the president had said.
``On the occasion of the birthday of the great Prophet (Mohammed) ... 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 last Saturday and Easter, next Sunday.
``This pardon is a gift to the British people,'' he said.
Ahmadinejad also said the British government had ``sent a letter to the Foreign Ministry pledging that it (entering Iranian waters) will not happen again.'' There was no immediate confirmation about the letter from London.
Ahmadinejad asked Blair not to ``punish'' the crew for confessing that they had been in Iranian waters when they were seized by Iranian coast guard. Iran broadcast videotapes of some of the crew giving confessions, infuriating Britain.
Moments before announcing the crew's imminent release, Ahmadinejad praised the Iranian coast guard members who seized the British on March 23, and he pinned a medal of bravery on the chest of their commander, who came on stage with two members of his crew.
``On behalf of the great Iranian people, I want to thank the Iranian coast guard who courageously defended and captured those who violated their territorial waters,'' Ahmadinejad said, vowing that Iran will ``not accept trespassing on it's territorial waters.''
In London, a spokesman for Blair's office said, ``We are looking at what has been said,'' but would not comment farther. He spoke on condition of anonymity, in line with government policy.
The Iranian diplomat in London said the sailors would be handed over to British diplomats and that it would then be up to the Foreign Office to decide how they would return home.
``They will go through some brief formalities and then they will go to the embassy,'' the diplomat said.
``They can go on a British Airways flight to Heathrow, they can go through the UAE, it is up to the British Embassy in Tehran in co-ordination with the Foreign Office here.''
Aboard Air Force One, US President George Bush's national security spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said Bush ``welcomes the news.''
The European Union, which said it stood ``shoulder-to-shoulder'' with London in the stand-off, also said it welcomed the news.