Blair: Next 2 days 'fairly critical'

The next two days are "fairly critical" to resolving the dispute over a seized British navy crew, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Tuesday, after Iran's chief international negotiator offered a new approach to end the standoff with Tehran.

Blair: Next 2 days 'fairly critical'

The next two days are "fairly critical" toresolving the dispute over a seized British navy crew, British Prime MinisterTony Blairsaid Tuesday, after Iran'schief international negotiator offered a new approach to end the standoff withTehran.

"The next 48 hours will be fairly critical," Blair told Scotland'sReal Radio. He said Ali Larijani's suggestion of talks offered hope of an endto the crisis. "If they want to resolve this in a diplomatic way the door isopen," the prime minister said.

Earlier, Iran'schief international negotiator said his country wanted to resolve the standoffover 15 detained British sailors through diplomacy and he saw no need to putthe crew on trial.

The British government responded to Ali Larijani by saying that both it and Iran had a"shared desire to make early progress" in resolving the dispute.

The quieter tone from both capitals Monday raised hopes the 11-day standoffmight be solved soon. But optimistic signs emerged before, only to be followedby a hardening of positions and tough rhetoric.

"There remain some differences between us, but we can confirm we sharehis preference for early bilateral discussions to find a diplomatic solution tothis problem," a British Foreign Office spokeswoman said speakinganonymously in line with government policy.

Iran's priority "isto solve the problem through proper diplomatic channels," Larijani told Britain'sChannel 4 television news. "We are not interested in letting this issueget further complicated."

And he called for all involved to stop using "the language offorce." Last week Larijani had suggested the captives might be tried forallegedly intruding into Iranian waters.

The Iranian capital, Tehran, was quiet Monday— a day after hundreds of students hurled firecrackers and rocks at the BritishEmbassy, chanting "death to Britain" and calling for theexpulsion of the country's ambassador because of the standoff.

Earlier Monday, an Iranian state-run television station said all 15 of thedetained Royal Navy personnel had confessed to illegally entering Iranianwaters before they were captured.

However, Iranian state-run radio said the confessions would not be broadcastbecause of what it called "positive changes" in the negotiating stanceof Britain,whose leaders have been angered by the airing of videos of the captives.

The radio did not elaborate on the supposed changes by the British. But in London, a Britishofficial, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of theissue, said Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had agreed to consider waysto avoid such situations in the future.

The official insisted Britainwas not negotiating with the Iranians and still wanted the captives freedunconditionally.

The eight sailors and seven marines were detained March 23by naval units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards while the Britons patrolledfor smugglers near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway.

Iransays the team was in Iranian waters. Britain insists it was in Iraqiwaters working under a U.N. mandate.

Iran has previouslydemanded an apology from Britainas a condition for the sailors' release.

Echoing an Iranian legislator, Larijani suggested a British delegation visitTehran "toreview the case, to clarify the case, first of all — to clarify whether theyhave been in our territorial waters at all."

Over the weekend, The Sunday Telegraph of London said Britain was considering sending a senior RoyalNavy officer to Tehranto discuss the return of the captives as well as to talk about ways to avoidfuture incidents.

Larijani also urged Britainto guarantee "that such violation will not be repeated," but avoidedrepeating Tehran'sdemand for an apology. British leaders have insisted they have nothing toapologize for.

The comments suggested the sides were seeking a face-facing formula in whicheach could argue its interests were upheld while the captives could go free.Under such a formula, Irancould claim Britain tacitlyacknowledged the border area is in dispute, and Britain could maintain it neverapologized.

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