TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would free the 15 detained British sailors and marines Wednesday as an Easter holiday ``gift'' to the British people.
Iranian state television said the 14 men and one woman, who were seized while on patrol in the northern Persian gulf on March 23, would leave Iran on Thursday. An Iranian official in London said they would be handed over to British diplomats in Tehran.
Ahmadinejad's surprise announcement came at a news conference shortly after he pinned a medal on the chest of the Iranian coast guard commander who intercepted the sailors and marines.
``On the occasion of the birthday of the great prophet (Muhammad) ... and for the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people _ with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial _ forgave those 15,'' he said, referring to the Muslim prophet's birthday on March 30 and the Easter holiday.
``This pardon is a gift to the British people,'' he said.
The office of British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it welcomed the news. President Bush, who had condemned the seizure of the Britons and referred to them as ``hostages,'' also welcomed it, said his national security spokesman, Gordon Johndroe.
Their release would end a 13-day standoff between London and Tehran that was sparked when the crew was seized as it searched for smugglers off the Iraqi coast. Britain denied Iranian claims the crew had entered Iranian waters.
After the news conference, state television showed Ahmadinejad meeting with the British crew, dressed in business suits, outside the presidential palace. He shook hands and chatted with them through a translator, and a caption to the video said the meeting was taking place as part of the ``process of release.''
``We appreciate it. Your people have been really kind to us, and we appreciate it very much,'' one of the crew could be heard telling Ahmadinejad in English.
Another said: ``We are grateful for your forgiveness.''
Ahmadinejad responded in Farsi, ``You are welcome.''
Among the crew at the palace was sailor Faye Turney, the sole woman among the captives, wearing a blue jacket and floral-patterned blue and white headscarf.
Iranian TV said the British captives had watched Ahmadinejad's news conference live and were ecstatic when a translator told them what the president had said.
In New York, British U.N. Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry said ``if this news is confirmed, then it's tremendous news and we're delighted.''
Recent days saw talk of direct negotiations between Britain and Iran, and a decrease in tensions that had risen after Iran broadcast videos in which Turney and the others ``confessed'' to violating Iranian territorial waters, and Britain expressed outrage.
Ahmadinejad said the British government had sent a letter to the Iranian Foreign Ministry pledging that entering Iranian waters ``will not happen again.''
The British Foreign Office responded: ``We haven't gone into detail of what was in the note. But we have said all along we made our position clear (about being in Iraqi waters).''
A Downing Street spokeswoman said Blair's office was ``establishing exactly what this means in terms of the method and timing of their release.''
An Iranian official in London said the crew members would be handed over to British diplomats in Tehran and that it would then be up to the Foreign Office to decide how they would return home.
``They will go through some brief formalities and then they will go to the embassy,'' said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. ``They can go on a British Airways flight to Heathrow, they can go through the UAE (United Arab Emirates), it is up to the British Embassy in Tehran in coordination with the Foreign Office here.''
In London, a Foreign Office spokesman said wanted to ``make sure we've actually got them in hand, and that they're safe and well,'' before making travel plans.
A group of British service members who were seized by Iran in 2004 were sent back to the British sector of southern Iraq aboard an Iranian commercial flight, after stops in Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Ahmadinejad's announcement came after Iran's state media reported that an Iranian envoy would be allowed to meet five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq. Another Iranian diplomat, separately seized two months ago by uniformed gunmen in Iraq, was released and returned Tuesday to Tehran.
Ahmadinejad said Iran will never accept trespassing in its territorial waters.
``On behalf of the great Iranian people, I want to thank the Iranian coast guard who courageously defended and captured those who violated their territorial waters,'' he said.
``We are sorry that British troops remain in Iraq and their sailors are being arrested in Iran,'' Ahmadinejad said.
Ahmadinejad asked Blair not to ``punish'' the crew for confessing that they had been in Iranian waters when they were seized by Iranian coast guard. Iran broadcast video of some of the crew giving confessions, angering Britain.
He also criticized Britain for deploying Turney in the Gulf, pointing out that she is a woman with a child.
``How can you justify seeing a mother away from her home, her children? Why don't they respect family values in the West?'' he asked of the British government.
Iran has denied it seized the Britons to force the release of Iranians held in Iraq, and Britain has steadfastly insisted it would not negotiate for the sailors' freedom.
Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency said earlier Wednesday that an Iranian envoy would be allowed to meet with the five detained Iranians in Iraq but gave no further details.
A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said, however, that American authorities were still considering the request. The spokesman, Maj. Gen. William C. Caldwell, said an international Red Cross team, including one Iranian, had visited the prisoners but he did not say when.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Associated Press that the case of the five Iranians detained in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish self-governing region in northern Iraq, had no connection with the British captives.
Zebari, a Kurd, said his government had been relaying Iranian requests for a meeting with the five detainees, but could not confirm the request had been approved.
In a commentary, the Iranian news agency said the movement on the Iranian prisoner issue was due in part to ``the new American political and military appointments in Iraq.''
The agency was referring to Gen. David Petraeus, who assumed command of U.S. forces in February, and Ryan Crocker, who began work as the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq last month.
U.S. troops detained the five Iranians on Jan. 11, accusing them of links to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard network that was supplying money and weapons to insurgents in Iraq.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said President Bush had approved the strategy of raiding Iranian targets in Iraq as part of efforts to confront the government in Tehran.
Iraqi Kurds, like the country's Shiites, maintain close ties with Shiite-dominated Iran, despite their warm relationship with the U.S. _ and have been upset over the arrests in their own capital.
Iran denounced the raid and insisted that the five were diplomats who were engaged exclusively in consular work. The Iraqi government said they were arrested at an office that was supposed to become an Iranian consulate.
The British newspaper The Independent reported this week that the Irbil raid had escalated tensions between the U.S. and Iran and may have set the stage for the March 23 seizure of the British naval personnel.
Also Wednesday, a Kuwaiti newspaper quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem as saying Damascus was also mediating the case of the 15 Britons.