(CBS/AP) Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that his government would release the 15 detained British sailors and marines Wednesday as an Easter season 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. Later, Iranian state television said the Britons would depart Iran on Thursday.
Later Wednesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the 15 captive British sailors and marines have been released and he bears "no ill will" toward the Iranian people.
"I'm glad that our 15 service personnel have been released and I know their release will come as a relief not just to them but to their families," Blair said. "Throughout, we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting, either."
Blair added, "To the Iranian people I would simply say this: We bear you no ill will."
The White House said President Bush welcomes the Iranian statement on the planned hostage release, and the U.S. is closely monitoring the unfolding developments in Tehran, reports CBS News correspondent Peter Maer.
Iranian state television said t 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 (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 last Saturday and Easter, next Sunday.
"This pardon is a gift to the British people," he said.
This "was Iran's way of taking control of the crisis and an effort to make the point that they were taking the high ground," says CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk. But first, Ahmadinejad delivered "a speech that was a recitation of Iran's case against the West including U.S. and British support for Saddam Hussein against Iran, his criticism of the U.N. Security Council, and Iran's right to have peaceful nuclear programs."
Syria and Qatar played a key role in resolving the crisis, Sky News reported Wednesday. A newspaper in Kuwait had reported Syria's involvement earlier Wednesday. Syria's Embassy in London also confirmed that Damascus was involved. Sky did not offer details on Qatar's involvement.
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 its territorial waters."
The release of the 15 would bring to an end a standoff sparked when the crew was seized as it searched for smugglers off the Iraqi coast. Britain denied Iranian claims the crew had entered Iranian waters.
Ahmadinejad said Iran was not seeking a "confrontation" when it intercepted the British, "but the deplorable conduct of the British government led to the prolonging of this incident."
"We are sorry that British troops remain in Iraq and their sailors are being arrested in Iran," he said.
He criticized Britain for deploying Leading Seaman Faye Turney, one of the 15 detainees, in 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.
Answering questions, Ahmadinejad said there was no link between the sailors' release and the release in Baghdad on Monday of an Iranian diplomat who was seized by gunmen wearing Iraqi military uniforms in January.
"If we had wanted to exchange Jalal Sharafi with the rest (the Britons) we would have exchanged him for 100,000. But we pardoned them," he said, adding the decision was "based on humanitarian considerations."
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