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Reports slam British response to Iran sailors kidnap

Reuters | June 19, 2007
Sophie Walker

Britain on Tuesday banned military and naval personnel from selling tales of their exploits to the media, following an outcry when sailors seized by Iran published stories in exchange for cash.

One report commissioned by the government into the incident concluded the Ministry of Defence was guilty of "a collective failure of judgment or an abstention of judgment" in allowing two of the former hostages to profit from recounting their experience to the media.

Another government commissioned report into operational mistakes during the group's seizure concluded the individuals involved "could have done more to prevent what happened" and recommended improvements in intelligence handling, communications and training.

The boarding party of 15 British sailors and Marines was captured by Iran in the Gulf in March and held for 13 days, prompting questions about why they had been taken with such apparent ease and why help was slow to come.

Upon their return, Defence Secretary Des Browne allowed the navy to permit two of them to sell their stories to newspapers for cash, causing public outrage.

"The acceptance of payments from the media offended the public and their view of the special place of the armed forces in British life," the report into the media side of the incident said on Tuesday.

Its author, Tony Hall, formerly BBC director of news, said he had not been able to identify a single person who in practice took the decision to authorize payment.

"Nobody said 'stop'. Nobody said 'that's not right'."

He said: "We have recommended that for the future, serving personnel both military and civilian, should not accept payment for talking to the media or the public about their work. There should be no exceptions to this rule."

Browne promised to implement "in full and as a matter of priority" the recommendations in both reports and promised an overhaul of his ministry's media handling operations.

OPERATIONAL MISTAKES

The second review into possible operational mistakes in the lead-up to and during the hostage-taking was not published as it contained secret details of British troops' rules of engagement.

The report will be presented in confidence to the House of Commons defense select committee. Selected highlights were made available to journalists.

Countering criticism that the sailors had been outgunned and that support helicopters had not been deployed when they should have been, the review said training and co-operation, not equipment or resources, was the problem.

"The central lesson is that we must improve our ability to identify and assess the risks that this complex environment generates and to train and posture our forces accordingly," it said.

Iran seized the sailors after saying they had strayed into Iranian waters and aired televised interviews in which the Britons "confessed" to entering Iranian territory.

Britain said they had been patrolling Iraqi waters on a regular U.N. mission.

"The events of the 23 March were one bad day in our proud 400 year history. I can assure the British people that I will personally ensure that the recommendations of this report are fully implemented," the head of the navy, Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, told a news conference.

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