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US Navy fires commander of sailors captured after entering Iranian waters

Published 13/05/2016

Eric Rasch has been fired by the US Navy
Eric Rasch has been fired by the US Navy

The US Navy has fired the commander of the 10 sailors who entered Iranian territorial waters and were captured.

In a statement, the US Navy said it had lost confidence in Eric Rasch, who was the executive officer of the squadron that included the 10 sailors at the time of the incident in January.

He was responsible for the training and readiness of the more than 400 sailors in the unit.

A Navy official said Mr Rasch failed to provide effective leadership, leading to a lack of oversight, complacency and failure to maintain standards in the unit.

Mr Rasch has been relieved of his command duties and reassigned.

Several other sailors have received administrative reprimands and others are likely to be disciplined before the investigation comes to an end later this month.

Mr Rasch was promoted to commander of the unit in April - after the Iran incident occurred, but before the preliminary investigation was complete.

The sailors, nine men and one woman, were detained after their boat drifted into Iranian waters off Farsi Island, an outpost in the middle of the Persian Gulf that has been used as a base for Revolutionary Guard speedboats since the 1980s.

The sailors were on two small armed vessels, known as riverine command boats, on a 300-mile journey from Kuwait to Bahrain, where the US Navy's 5th Fleet is located.

The incident raised tensions between the two countries after Iran published images of the soldiers kneeling with their hands on their heads.

US Navy captain Gary Leigh, commander of Riverine Group 1, decided to fire Mr Rasch after reviewing the initial investigation. No action has been taken, so far, against Greg Meyer, who was serving as commander of the squadron when the incident happened.

US defence secretary Ash Carter said the sailors made a navigational error and went off course.

An initial account said the "planned transit path for the mission was down the middle of the Gulf and not through the territorial waters of any country other than Kuwait and Bahrain".

That account said the crew stopped when a diesel engine in one of the boats appeared to have a mechanical issue. The second boat also stopped.

At this point they were in Iranian territorial waters, but the report said it is not clear whether the crew were aware of their exact location.

Two small Iranian craft carrying armed personnel approached while the boats were stopped and the crew was trying to assess the mechanical problem.

Soon after, they were joined by two more Iranian military vessels. A verbal exchange ensued between the Iranians and Americans but there was no gunfire.

The sailors had been scheduled to meet up with a US Coast Guard ship, the Monomoy, in international waters to refuel. But about 10 minutes before the refuelling was supposed to take place, the US Navy headquarters in Bahrain got a report that Iranians were questioning the crew members. Soon afterwards, it lost communications with the boats.

The US Navy launched a large-scale search-and-rescue mission, but it is not clear whether the Americans had already been taken ashore on Farsi Island. The Iranians eventually told the US that the 10 sailors were safe and healthy.

US secretary of state John Kerry, in a series of phone calls, used the personal relationship he has formed with Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to work out the crews' release.

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From Belfast Telegraph