Dubai: Ten US sailors detained by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were freed after the group's top naval commander said they appeared to have entered Iranian waters by mistake.
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Iran releases US sailors
Iran has released ten US Navy sailors after holding them overnight, saying their accidental crossover into Iranian waters was not a hostile act intended for espionage.
"Our technical investigations showed the two US Navy boats entered Iranian territorial waters inadvertently," the Revolutionary Guards Corps said in a statement carried by state television. "They were released in international waters after they apologised." .
Iran detained the sailors aboard two US Navy patrol boats in the Gulf on Tuesday in an incident that rattled nerves days ahead of the expected implementation of a landmark nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers.
"Our investigations show the two US Navy boats entered Iranian territorial waters due to a broken navigation system," Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi, of the Revolutionary Guards, was quoted as saying by the Tasnim news agency.
The incident had the potential to exacerbate tensions between Iran and the United States. Some conservatives in both countries have criticised the nuclear deal, under which Iran will curb its nuclear activities in exchange for lifting of sanctions. The deal is due to be implemented in the coming days.
Iran's armed forces chief, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, said the incident should demonstrate Iranian strength to "troublemakers" in the US Congress, which has sought to put pressure on Iran after the nuclear deal.
And at a presidential campaign rally in the United States, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who accuses President Barack Obama of being weak on foreign policy, described the incident as "an indication of where the hell we're going".
Attributing the boats' incursion into Iranian waters to a navigation error marked a de-escalation in rhetoric. Earlier, the Guards had said the boats were "snooping" in Iranian territory and said Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had demanded an apology from Washington.
Before Admiral Fadavi's comments, a spokesman for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps dismissed comments by US officials that the sailors would be promptly released, and said they were being interrogated on Farsi Island, close to where they were seized.
"What others say about the sailors' prompt release is their speculation, and I don't confirm or deny it," Revolutionary Guards spokesman Ramazan Sharif told Tasnim.
"If, during the interrogation, we find out that they were on an intelligence gathering mission, we will treat them differently," he said.
Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps is highly suspicious of US military activity near Iran's borders and many senior officers suspect Washington of pursuing regime change in Tehran.
The corps operates land and naval units separate to the regular armed forces and stages frequent war games in the Gulf, which separates Iran from its regional rival Saudi Arabia and a US naval base in Bahrain.
Last month, the US Navy said a Revolutionary Guard vessel fired unguided rockets near the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Strait of Hormuz, a critical shipping route for crude oil that connects the Gulf to the Indian Ocean. Iran denied the vessel had done so.
In April 2015, the Guards seized a container ship belonging to Maersk, one of the world's major shipping lines, in the Gulf because of a legal dispute between the company and Iran. The ship and its 24 crew members were released after 10 days.
The Guards have also seized British servicemen on two occasions, in 2004 and 2007, and a civilian British yacht crew in 2009. On each occasion the sailors were released unharmed after several days.