Thursday, January 19, 2006

Iraq says Iran to release detained coastguards

Iran on Thursday will hand over nine Iraqi coastguards who Baghdad says were "kidnapped" by Iranian forces in their tidal water frontier last weekend, the regional governor of Iraq's Basra province said.

"The nine will be delivered to the Iraqi side at 2:30 p.m. (1130 GMT) today," governor Mohammed al-Waili told Reuters.

But three hours after that time had passed, there was still no sign of the coastguards at the Shalamcha border crossing 30 km (19 miles) southeast of the city of Basra. READ MORE

Adding confusion, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry released a statement it said it had received earlier from the Iranian embassy in Baghdad. The statement said Iran would free the coastguards at 3:00 p.m. (1200 GMT).

Iraqi officials told journalists at the crossing the handover could still take place in several hours.

Waili said on Tuesday that the Iraqi coastguards had boarded an Iranian-skippered ship suspected of smuggling oil in Iraqi waters when they were overpowered by an Iranian patrol.

Iran initially denied the incident, but then its envoy to Baghdad on Wednesday accused the Iraqi vessels of having encroached on Iranian waters.

The affair is a test of the new warmth in relations between Baghdad and Tehran since pro-Iranian Shi'ites took control in Iraq after U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iraq and Iran have a long history of disputes along the waterway. Iran briefly seized three British naval patrol boats in the same area in June 2004, at a time when U.S.-led occupation forces were responsible for policing the border.