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UK sailors 'blindfolded, isolated'

Story Highlights

• British service members say they were subjected to "psychological pressure"
• Detainees were isolated, blindfolded, interrogated, officers tell news conference
• Group was outside Iranian waters when captured, naval officer Carman says
• British boarding operations in Persian Gulf suspended, head of navy confirms
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The 15 British military personnel captured by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf were subjected to "psychological pressure" and kept in isolation during their detention, the group's officers said on Friday.

Lt. Felix Carman of the British Royal Navy, addressing a news conference at a military base in Chivenor, southwestern England, said the sailors and marines were well outside Iranian waters when the incident occurred -- despite previous statements to the contrary while in Iranian custody.

"Irrespective of what has been said in the past, when we were detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard ... I can clearly state we were 1.7 nautical miles from Iranian waters," Carman said. (Read the full statement)

Iran reacted to those comments by saying the briefing was "staged" to cover up the mistake made by the British crew by entering Iranian waters.

The sailors and marines, who were seized from patrol boats on March 23, returned to the UK on Thursday after 13 days in Iranian captivity.

Lt. Carman said they were kept in isolation, interrogated and blindfolded, and subjected to "aggressive questioning and rough handling."

Members of the group had been presented with two options, said Lt. Carman: To admit having strayed into Iranian waters or face up to seven years in prison in Iran.

Capt. Christopher Air of the British Royal Marines said they had "feared the worst" during their captivity when they had been bound, blindfolded and lined up against a wall while they heard the sound of weapons being cocked. "There was a lot of trickery and mind games being played," he said. (Watch the sailors describe their experiences in captivity Video)

Several of the captives appeared on Iranian state television during their detention to apologize for their actions. They were also filmed meeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and receiving gifts prior to their return to the UK. (Watch how Iran's PR plan unfolded Video)

Faye Turney, the one woman among the captives, had been singled out and "used as a propaganda tool," Carman said.

Iranian authorities had released several handwritten letters, allegedly by Turney, in which she said the group had been captured in Iranian waters.

Air praised Turney for maintaining her dignity after she had been separated from the 14 men. He said she had been told the rest of the group had been freed and she was the only one still being held.

Air said a "conscious decision" had been taken not to engage the Iranians who took them captive. (Watch the sailors' denial that they were in Iranian waters Video)

"It was clear they arrived with a planned intent," said Air. "Had we resisted there would have been a mighty fight that we could not have won and with consequences that would have major strategic impacts."

Air said some of the Iranian sailors had been "deliberately aggressive and unstable."

"They rammed our boats and turned their heavy machine guns, RPG, and weapons on us. Another six boats were closing in on us. We realized that our efforts to reason with these people were not making any headway. Nor were we able to calm some of the individuals down... They boarded our boats, removed our weapons, and steered the boats towards the Iranian shore."

Able Seaman Arthur Batchelor said the 15's treatment by the Iranians had been "humane" but they had not been allowed to communicate with each other.

Responding to the briefing, Iran's Foreign Ministry said the event was "staged."

"Such staged moves cannot cover up the mistake made by British military personnel who illegally entered Iran's territory," the ministry said in a statement faxed to Reuters.

Iranian state-run television accused British Prime Minister Tony Blair of pressuring the marines and sailors into disavowing their admission to the Iraqi military that their vessel had strayed into Iranian territorial waters.

Iranian television repeated the reasons President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had given for freeing the captives -- that the act was being done out of kindness and a desire for peace, and in respect for last week's anniversary of the birthday of the prophet Mohammed and the upcoming Christian celebration of Easter.

UK suspends boarding operations

Meanwhile, military sources said on Friday that Britain had suspended boarding operations in the Persian Gulf and launched a review into the circumstances that led to the 15's capture and detention.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defence said a "detailed inquiry" was under way and that debriefings of the group would continue, the UK's Press Association reported.

First Sea Lord Jonathon Band, the head of the Royal Navy, confirmed boarding operations involving British forces had been suspended.

"For the moment we have stopped UK boarding operations," Band told BBC radio. "We will obviously do a complete review."

Band said the review of the incident would consider intelligence, equipment and procedures as well as examining the rules of engagement for British forces operating in the area.

He also defended the conduct of the 15 during their captivity, commenting that their "confessions" to Iranian state media appeared to have been made under "a certain amount of psychological pressure."

"From what I have seen of them on the television and I met them personally when they returned to their families yesterday, I think they acted with considerable dignity and a lot of courage," Band said.

He also rejected suggestions that the patrol had been "spying" and said there was "absolutely no doubt" they were in Iraqi waters.

"We are certainly not spying on them," he said. "The Iranians in that part of Iraqi territorial waters are not part of the scene."


Capt. Christopher Air, left, of the British Royal Marines and Lt. Felix Carman at Friday's news conference.


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