April 3, 2007

Guardian UK:

The 15 British personnel held captive in Iran for almost a fortnight are in the process of being released in a "gift" to Britain, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said today.

In a surprise announcement during a news conference at the presidential palace in Tehran, Mr Ahmadinejad said the 14 men and one woman would "be going back home".

The detainees would leave Iran by plane tomorrow, Iranian state television reported later.

After the conference finished, Iranian television broadcast footage of Mr Ahmadinejad, surrounded by aides, meeting the detainees one by one in an outside courtyard.

Wearing a suit, one of the male captives was heard to say to the Iranian president: "We are very grateful for your forgiveness."

Mr Ahmadinejad responded to him in Farsi: "You are welcome."

Another of the sailors said: "We appreciate it. Your people have been really kind to us, and we appreciate it very much."

Mr Ahmadinejad had described the release of the 15 as a gift to Britain to mark the birthday of the prophet Muhammad last Saturday, and Easter.

According to Iranian media, the marines and sailors, who were detained on March 23, "jumped for joy" when they heard they were to be released as they watched the president's news conference live.

Downing Street welcomed the release but struck a note of caution, saying it was establishing what the announcement "means in terms of the method and timing of their release".

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