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Last Updated: Monday, 16 April 2007, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
In full: Defence Secretary's statement
Defence Secretary Des Browne has given a statement to the House of Commons about the capture of 15 marines and sailors by Iran, their release and subsequent dealings with the UK media. Here is the full statement:

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement about operational events over the recess.

Before I start I know the whole House will join me in expressing my condolences to the families and friends of the 9 servicemen and women who have lost their lives since the House last sat:

On April 1st Kingsman Danny Wilson, and on April 2nd Rifleman Aaron Lincoln, were killed by small arms fire while on patrol in Basra City.

On April 5th Second Lieutenant Joanna Yorke Dyer, Corporal Kris O'Neill, Private Eleanor Dlugosz, Kingsman Adam Smith, and their interpreter, were killed when their Warrior Vehicle was hit by a massive bomb west of Basra City.

On April 13th Private Chris Gray was killed in Afghanistan in a firefight with the Taleban.

And on Saturday night, two servicemen were killed when two UK helicopters collided north of Baghdad. An investigation is ongoing, but all the evidence so far indicates this was an accident, and not an attack.

Several personnel were seriously injured over this period in these and other incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan and they too are in our thoughts.

This Mr Speaker is a reminder of the risks faced every day by our forces on our behalf. I offer our gratitude and profound respect for those who have died, and those who have been injured, in the service of their country.

Mr Speaker, I am sure the House will wish me to focus in the time available to focus on the incident which has attracted the most public and parliamentary attention over the recess, namely the incident in which 15 of our personnel were captured and detained by the Iranians, and the events that followed.

I will describe, first, the incident itself; second, how it was handled diplomatically; and third, how it was handled in media terms, including the decision to allow serving personnel to talk to the media individually and to accept payment for so doing - decisions for which, as I have already made clear, I accept responsibility. Finally, I will set out how we intend to learn the lessons for the future.

Let me first turn to the incident itself.

On 23 March HMS Cornwall was operating as part of the Coalition Task Force in the Northern Arabian Gulf, under the authority of a UN resolution.

The task force is responsible for a range of Maritime Security Operations including protecting the Iraqi oil infrastructure, and undertaking boardings to disrupt weapons smuggling.

At 0753, Cornwall launched two boats, with a Lynx helicopter in support, with the intention to board MV TARAWA, a merchant vessel that had evaded a boarding the day before.

En route, the Lynx flew over a different vessel, the MV Al Hanin, and reported a suspect cargo. A decision was made to board the Al Hanin. The position was well inside Iraqi waters.

The boarding team boarded the vessel and, at 0846, the Royal Marine Boarding Officer reported the ship secure. The Lynx was tasked to return to Cornwall. By 0900 the helicopter was back on board and put at 30 minutes notice to fly.

At 0904, one of the two Royal Navy boats reported Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy activity nearby. Very soon afterwards, one of the boats reported that the Iranians were 'beside them'. By 0906 voice communications with the boats were lost; and shortly after, all communications were lost.

At 0928 the Lynx was launched again, and returned to the position of the Al Hanin. Initially it was unable to find the UK boats but at 1005, one was spotted being escorted by Iranian vessels.

Mr Speaker, that concludes what I can say today about the operational details. I am of course happy to answer questions, but there is not much more to say at this stage, until investigations are complete.

I will say two final things. First, that the Royal Navy is not currently conducting boarding operations - although coalition partners are, and the Navy continues to fulfil its other tasks.

Second, that I support the decision of the Royal Marine Captain to order his boarding party to lower their readied weapons. As he put it, he judged that, if they had resisted, there would have been a major fight, one we could not have won, with consequences that would have had major strategic impact.

Let me turn now to the diplomatic handling of the incident.

Mr Speaker, the Iranians detained our personnel illegally, took them first to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval base, and from there to Tehran.

We made clear both directly to the Iranians, and in public statements, that their detention was unacceptable, and that they should be released immediately.

We made intense diplomatic efforts to establish direct lines of communication with Iranian leaders, to prevent the situation escalating and to resolve it quickly.

It became clear that this alone would not be enough, not least because of the internal struggles within Iran as to who had control of the situation.

We therefore galvanised the international community to put pressure on the Iranian regime.

The prime minister rightly has paid tribute to those friends in the EU, in the UN, and in the region who supported us and condemned the illegal detention.

I am in no doubt that this focused minds at the top of the Iranian regime. Our personnel were released on Wednesday 4th April - after a predictable attempt by the Iranian president to turn it into a propaganda victory.

But this should fool no one: serious observers do not believe that Iran has emerged from this in a stronger position. And we should remember that our main objective - the peaceful resolution of the incident and the safe return of our people - was achieved, earlier than many predicted.

And let me be clear: there was no apology, and there was no deal.

Mr Speaker, let me turn now to the media handling of this incident.

On Thursday 5th April, the 15 personnel arrived in the UK, and were debriefed and reunited with their families. The next day, six of the 15 held a collective press conference, organised by the MoD, which was uncontroversial.

The controversy surrounds the relations between individual personnel and the media. The media had approached the families of the detainees while they were still being held in Iran. There were many offers of payment.

These approaches intensified as soon as the 15 were released, and it was clear that the pressure would soon be transferred from the families to the individuals themselves.

They were already aware of the criticism of their behaviour while detained, and some were intent on setting the record straight.

This left us with a dilemma. We had a duty of care to the individuals and their families, who were under intense pressure.

On the Thursday, all those involved took the view that we should allow the individuals to talk to the media, and that we should support them through that process.

I believe that all those involved in this decision acted in good faith and out of a desire to protect the individuals, to protect the Service, and to protect operational security, against the risks inherent in unofficial dialogue with the media.

These were real risks, which have materialised in the past.

Mr Speaker, once the decision had been taken to allow the individuals to talk to the media, this raised a second question: how to handle the fact that the media were competing for these individuals by offering substantial sums of money.

This second question was considered by the Navy over the same short period.

The Navy concluded that payments were "Permissible" under Queen's Regulations, and that in this particular situation it was "impractical to attempt to prevent" them.

This was the position presented to me in a note sent from the Navy's HQ in Portsmouth to my office on Thursday afternoon, and which was put to me on Good Friday.

I accept that in retrospect I should have rejected the note and overruled the decision. The circumstances were exceptional, and the pressure on the families was intense.

The Navy's decision was taken in good faith, and so was their interpretation of the Regulations.

But I should have foreseen that this attempt by the Navy in good faith to handle an exceptional situation would be interpreted as indicating a departure in the way the Armed Forces deal with the media.

Of course, over the course of the weekend I discussed the issue further, and on Monday I asked for further advice from Naval Chiefs and the Chief of the Defence Staff.

I decided that we must immediately review the rules, and stop any further media payments to serving personnel until this review was complete.

I informed the Prime Minister - which, as he has made clear, was his only involvement in this matter - and announced the decision in a statement.

Mr Speaker, let me be clear with the House: I made a mistake.

I have been completely open about that. And to the extent that what happened between Friday and Monday has caused people to question the hard-won reputation of the Armed Forces, that is something I profoundly regret - but I remind people that precisely because this reputation is hard won, it is not easily undermined.

Mr Speaker, these are the facts as I know them.

Let me turn to what happens now. I made clear on Monday the implications for the specific issue of serving personnel receiving payment: that this must not happen again.

But clearly there are other lessons to be learned from this whole incident.

The first aspect is the operational circumstances and factors leading to the capture of the 15 personnel.

This was an unusual situation with wide and far reaching consequences, and to reflect this, I can announce that the Chief of the Defence Staff has appointed Lt Gen Sir Rob Fulton, Royal Marines, currently the governor general of Gibraltar, to lead an inquiry.

As a retired former commander of UK Amphibious Task Forces, he will bring both expertise and objectivity to the inquiry. It will cover all operational aspects, including risk and threat assessment, strategic and operational planning, tactical decisions, rules of engagement, training, equipment, and resources. I expect this to take around 6 weeks.

Clearly it will consider operationally sensitive material, and as such, it will not be possible to publish all the conclusions, but they will be presented to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in full.

I am committed to ensuring that Parliament and the public have the full facts - but just as importantly, to ensure that the MoD and the Services learn from these events, and do not let this happen again.

In a similar spirit, and on the same timeframe, I can also announce that I will be asking a small team to take over the review of the media handling which I started last week.

The team will consist of a senior officer and a senior MoD official both unconnected with these events, and will be led by an independent figure with wide media experience.

The review will draw on all relevant experience, not just this particular incident, but other high profile incidents involving personnel on operations. I want to make clear that this review is not a witch hunt.

As I have already said, I take responsibility in this particular case.

Rather, the review will seek to identify lessons and make recommendations on how to manage the complex issues at play in this area: how to balance our duty to support our people, our duty of transparency, our duty to protect the reputation of the Services, and most important, our duty to protect the security of our personnel, in a demanding media environment.

Mr Speaker, I take responsibility for what happened over last weekend.

I have acted to put it right.

I have acted to make sure we learn the lessons of the whole episode, in a manner that allows for full parliamentary scrutiny.

But as we go through this process, we should remember the most important point in all this, which is that we got our people back, safe, and on our terms.



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