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Last Updated: Monday, 3 November, 2003, 12:30 GMT
Iranian journalists freed in Iraq

By Jim Muir
BBC correspondent in Tehran

Two Iranian journalists arrested by American forces in Iraq and held in security detention for the past four months have been released and allowed to return home across the border to Iran.

Soheil Karimi (Picture from the Abu Taleb-Karimi website)
The men were suspected of spying (Pictures from campaign website)

The two men, Saeed Abu Taleb and Soheil Karimi, were filming near an American checkpoint at the time of their arrest on 1 July .

Iran and the US do not have diplomatic relations, and Britain played a key role in mediating the release of the two journalists.

As the representative of the Americans' closest ally in the coalition occupying Iraq, the British embassy in Tehran came under strong pressure to do intervene in the issue.

'Security regime'

Behind the scenes, British diplomacy worked hard to resolve the case as quickly as possible - no easy task, with the American military under constant threat in Iraq, and with no love at all lost between Washington and Tehran.

Just over four months after their detainment, a statement from the British Embassy in Tehran and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, said the Coalition had ordered the release of the two men, after US forces had completed their investigation and decided not to press charges.

The statement said it was "unfortunate that the two journalists had been caught up in the stringent security regime currently in place in Iraq".

"The UK has been in contact with the US and Iranian governments throughout their detention, and has intervened at a senior level to press for the investigation to be brought to an early conclusion," the statement said.

Saeed Abu Taleb (Picture from the Abu Taleb-Karimi website)
Saeed Abu Taleb is a well-known documentary maker

"After several fatal attacks on Coalition forces at checkpoints, the Coalition authorities could not afford to take any chances. But we are pleased that the issue has now been resolved and the men are now on their way home," it added.

Iranians will remain convinced that the two were held because of their nationality. But there will be relief and joy among their families over their eventual release.

Sensitive relations

For most of the past four months, their families have received virtually no news of the two and why they were being held.

Saeed Abu Taleb is a well-known documentary-maker working for Iranian state television, and Soheil Karimi was his cameraman.

Britain's role in helping to bring about their release may earn it some credit from the Iranian authorities - but there are plenty of other complications in this constantly sensitive relationship.

Recent remarks by Prime Minister Tony Blair, to the effect that the war in Iraq helped bring Iranian compliance on the nuclear issue, have ruffled feathers in Iran.

The case against a former Iranian diplomat, Hadi Soleimanpour, currently on bail in the UK after an extradition request from Argentina, has added to difficulties. Argentine authorities want to try him in connection with the bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires nine years ago.

More than 50 other Iranians remain in US military custody in Iraq. Many of them are believed to be would-be pilgrims who crossed the border illegally to visit Shia Muslim holy places in southern Iraq.

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