British Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed Wednesday the release of 15 detainees by Iran, saying London wanted to peacefully resolve disputes with Tehran. The British navy crew was seized by Iranian forces nearly two weeks ago in what Tehran says were Iranian territorial waters in the Gulf.
"A gift to the British people," was how President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the decision to free the 15 sailors and marines.
Mr. Ahmadinejad said the naval crew was pardoned. He also said he was "saddened" by what he called Britain's violation of Iranian waters.
After his news conference, Mr. Ahmadinejad went directly to a meeting with the sailors and marines, who are expected to leave Tehran on Thursday.
In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed the decision.
"I'm glad that our 15 service personnel have been released. Throughout, we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating, but not confronting either."
Britain has all along insisted the sailors were in Iraqi, not Iranian, waters when they were captured. In his brief statement to reporters, Mr. Blair did not apologize nor did he directly thank the Iranian president or government for the decision, but he did address himself to the Iranian people.
"We bear you no ill will. On the contrary, we respect Iran as an ancient civilization, as a nation with a proud and dignified history and the disagreements we have with your government we wish to resolve peacefully through dialogue. I hope, as I have always hoped, that in the future, we are able to do so."
Even though intensive discussions were known to be taking place between London and Tehran, President Ahmadinejad's sudden announcement came as a surprise. He revealed the decision at a lengthy news conference in Tehran, during which he made numerous references to Islamic religious verses and also chastised the West, particularly Britain and the United States for its actions and policies.
At one point, he praised the Revolutionary Guard crew responsible for the capture of the British sailors nearly two weeks ago. He also gave a medal to the Guard commander. In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman also welcomed the Iranian decision to release the 15 sailors and marines.