First ac­count of sailors’ Iran de­ten­tion re­leased

Boat crews with me­chan­i­cal is­sue “mis­nav­i­gated” into Iran’s wa­ters

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Robert Burns

Wash­ing­ton » In its first of­fi­cial ac­count of Iran’s seizure and re­lease of 10U. S. sailors in the Per­sian Gulf, the U. S. mil­i­tary said Mon­day the only items found miss­ing from their two re­cov­ered boats were SIM cards for two satel­lite phones.

But key ques­tions, such as why the sailors de­vi­ated from their planned route to en­ter Ira­nian ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters, re­main unan­swered in the ac­count re­leased by U. S. Cen­tral Com­mand.

It’s call­ing the de­scrip­tion a pre­lim­i­nary time­line of the events of Jan. 12- 13.

“A Navy com­mand in­ves­ti­ga­tion ini­ti­ated Jan. 14 will pro­vide a more com­plete ac­count­ing of events,” Cen­tral Com­mand said.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion will fo­cus on the U. S. sailors’ treat­ment while in cus­tody, in­clud­ing any in­ter­ro­ga­tion by Ira­nian per­son­nel, the com­mand said.

De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter said last week while vis­it­ing Cen­tral Com­mand head­quar­ters in Florida that the boat crews “mis­nav­i­gated.” He did not say how that mis­take hap­pened or pro­vide sub­stan­tial de­tails about an episode that posed a po­ten­tial com­pli­ca­tion to ef­forts by Wash­ing­ton and Tehran to es­tab­lish bet­ter re­la­tions.

The boat seizure hap­pened hours be­fore Pres­i­dent Barack-Obama de­liv­ered his State of the Union ad­dress and days be­fore im­ple­men­ta­tion of the Iran nu­clear deal with the West. The im­ple­men­ta­tion trig­gered the end of crip­pling in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions on Iran and a U. S.- Iran pris­oner ex­change.

The time­line re­leased Mon­day said the U. S. sailors were not mis­treated dur­ing ap­prox­i­mately 15 hours in Ira­nian hands. It said a post- re­cov­ery in­ven­tory of the boats found that all weapons, am­mu­ni­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tions gear was ac­counted for, mi­nus two SIM cards ap­par­ently re­moved from two hand- held satel­lite phones.

The sailors were trav­el­ing in small armed ves­sels known as river­ine com­mand boats, headed from Kuwait to Bahrain, which is the lo­ca­tion of the Navy’s 5th Fleet.

“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,” the ac­count said. The boats were seized by Iran and es­corted at gun­point to Farsi Is­land, which is in the middle of the Gulf and home to an Ira­nian mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity.

Along the ap­prox­i­mately 300- mile jour­ney, they­were to have re­fu­eled by link­ing up with a U. S. Coast Guard ves­sel, the Monomoy, in in­ter­na­tional wa­ters. The time­line said that about 10 min­utes af­ter the sched­uled re­fu­el­ing, Cen­tral Com­mand’s naval head­quar­ters at Bahrain re­ceived a re­port that the boats’ crew mem­ber­swere be­ing ques­tioned by Ira­ni­ans.

About 19 min­utes later, the naval head­quar­ters “was ad­vised of de­graded com­mu­ni­ca­tions with” the two boats, the ac­count added. Af­ter an ad­di­tional 26 min­utes, the naval head­quar­ters was no­ti­fied of a to­tal loss of com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the boats.

Alarge- scale search- an­dres­cue mis­sion was un­der­taken at that point, but it is not clear whether the Amer­i­cans had by this time been taken ashore on Farsi Is­land.

Cen­tral Com­mand’s naval head­quar­ters at Bahrain at­tempted to con­tact Ira­nian mil­i­tary units op­er­at­ing near Farsi Is­land by us­ing marine ra­dio to broad­cast in­for­ma­tion about the search- and- res­cue op­er­a­tion.

Sep­a­rately, the U. S. no­ti­fied Ira­nian coast guard units via tele­phone. Some hours later, about four hours af­ter the U. S. first heard that the sailors were be­ing ques­tioned by Ira­ni­ans, the U. S. Navy cruiser USS Anzio re­ceived word from the Ira­ni­ans that the sailors were in Ira­nian cus­tody. The Ira­ni­ans de­scribed the 10 as “safe and healthy,” ac­cord­ing to the U. S. ac­count.

In the hours af­ter the seizure of the Amer­i­cans be­came pub­lic Jan. 12, there were con­flict­ing re­ports about what caused the sailors to stray off their in­tended course.

The of­fi­cial ac­count Mon­day did not ex­plain the rea­son. It said only that the crews “de­vi­ated” fromtheir planned course. It made no ref­er­ence to the nav­i­ga­tion er­ror cited by Carter last week.

“At some point one ( of the two boats) had in­di­ca­tions of a me­chan­i­cal is­sue in a diesel en­gine which caused the crews to stop and be­gin trou­bleshoot­ing,” the ac­count said. Be­cause the boats were trav­el­ing to­gether, the other boat also stopped.

At this point they were in Ira­nian ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters, “al­though it’s not clear the crew was aware of their ex­act lo­ca­tion,” it added.

While the boats were stopped and the crew was try­ing to as­sess the me­chan­i­cal prob­lem, Ira­nian boats ap­proached. First to ar­rive were two small Ira­nian craft with armed per­son­nel aboard. 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.

Armed Ira­nian mil­i­tary per­son­nel then boarded the U. S. boats while other Ira­nian per­son­nel aboard other armed ves­sels mon­i­tored the sit­u­a­tion. At gun­point, the U. S. boats and their crews were es­corted to a small port fa­cil­ity on Farsi Is­land, where the Amer­i­cans went ashore and were de­tained, the ac­count said.

The sailors were re­leased the fol­low­ing morn­ing aboard their boats.

Frame grabs from Jan. 12 show, clock­wise from top left, Amer­i­can Navy boats in cus­tody of the Ira­nian Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard in the Per­sian Gulf; U. S. Navy sailors in an undis­closed lo­ca­tion in Iran; mem­bers of the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard sort­ing Amer­i­can sailors’ weapons; sailors with the hands up af­ter be­ing boarded by Ira­nian guards. IRIB News Agency

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