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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 April 2007, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
What next for the former captives?
By Joe Campbell
BBC News

Chivenor reunion
The captives will now face questions after their return home
As 15 Royal Navy sailors and marines held in Iran are reunited with their families, what lessons can the forces learn from the returning crew?

The 15 will not be rushed into leaving the military base at Chivenor in North Devon, where they were flown in two naval Sea King helicopters on their return to UK soil.

Lt Colonel Andy Price, of the Royal Marines, who met the group on the tarmac at Heathrow before flying with them to Devon, described the time they will be allowed to spend there readjusting to their new-found freedom as "an open ended offer."

For the marines in the group, the commando barracks will be a familiar environment.

It is also reasonably close to the sailors' base at Devonport, which is home port for their ship, HMS Cornwall.

Chivenor, a former RAF training airfield in the rolling countryside beside the River Taw estuary, was nicknamed by some in the air force "heaven in Devon".

Physical check-up

Most importantly for the former captives it will give them a chance to readjust to being back home, away from prying eyes.

It is a pattern that has been followed before, most notably when hostages Terry Waite and John McCarthy returned to the UK from Lebanon to the privacy of the RAF base at Lyneham in Wiltshire.

The navy says time with family will come first and reunions will last "as long as it takes."

Navy and marine captives
The released crew will be given the option of counselling

A physical check-up by naval doctors will follow with military counsellors and others, including forces chaplains, on hand to provide support.

The military does not want to be seen as pressurising the former captives, but is keen to learn all it can about events, from the moment the Iranian boat pulled alongside them in the northern Gulf to the time they were handed over to the British embassy officials in Tehran.

Eric Grove, director of the Centre for Security Studies at Hull University, said military debriefers would want to know any details the 15 could recall about where they had been held and who their captors were.

"I do not think there will be any recriminations but we will try to milk it for as much intelligence as possible," he said.

During the time they were held, several of the group were seen on Iranian TV apologising for having "trespassed" into their captors' waters.

"What they will want to know is what kind of pressures were they put under in order to make the kind of statements they did," added Mr Grove.

Lessons learned

Even before the Iranians released the 15 captives, the navy had begun the process of looking at what happened to see if it could learn any lessons.

The first stage of that will have been a so-called "ship's investigation" under HMS Cornwall's commanding officer.

"Its purpose is just to collect the facts of what's happened while it's still fresh in everyone's mind," explained Cdr Mark Durkin, a former captain of the destroyer HMS Exeter.

Faye Turney
Returning captives' evidence will be vital to the inquiry

In the next few days the investigation into events is expected to step up, with the appointment of officers to conduct a formal Board of Inquiry.

Normally it would be made up of at least three officers who have specialist knowledge of the areas it might be looking into, such as navigation or maritime law.

The information gleaned from the captives themselves will be vital as that inquiry gets under way, Defence Secretary Des Browne said.

"This learning process is going on and in relation to this investigation a very important part of that process is to have the evidence of these people just returned from Iran."

One of the questions that will have to be considered is whether the hostage crisis could have been avoided in the first place.

The navy points out 66 boardings, like the one during which the sailors and marines were seized, had taken place since the start of March.

Captain Mike Davis-Marks, of the Royal Navy, said: "The navy itself will review its procedures for what up until 12 days ago would have been considered a routine boarding operation."

Cuts question

Already some military commentators have questioned the use of HMS Cornwall - one of the navy's most sophisticated ships designed to hunt down enemy submarines in the North Atlantic - as a base for carrying out a policing operation in the shallow coastal waters off the northern Gulf.

Royal Navy Lynx helicopter
The navy may see if more air cover is needed for future boardings

Mike Critchley, a former naval officer and editor of the magazine Warship World, said that meant when the Iran's Revolutionary Guard grabbed the sailors and marines, HMS Cornwall was too far away to offer support because of the risk she might run aground in the area where the boarding was taking place.

"The Royal Navy has been downsized in recent years as cuts have followed cuts," he said.

"The anti-terror patrol ships currently laid up and for sale in Portsmouth, HMS Brecon, Dulverton and Cottesmore, would have been ideal to cope with the incident and continuing board and search patrols in the Northern Gulf."

A change to the navy's rules of engagement has already been described by MoD insiders as "very unlikely."

But one option might be to make sure ships like HMS Cornwall in future carry the two Lynx helicopters they are capable of operating, so one can be in the air providing protection at all times when boarding operations are under way.

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