Iran seized 15 British naval personnel who were conducting "routine boarding operations" in Iraqi waters, the U.K. Ministry of Defence said.
"The boarding party had completed a successful inspection of a merchant ship when they and their two boats were surrounded and escorted by Iranian vessels into Iranian territorial waters," the ministry said in an e-mailed statement. "We are urgently pursuing this matter with the Iranian authorities at the highest level."
The episode comes as the United Nations Security Council prepares to vote on a draft resolution that would freeze the assets of a state-owned Iranian bank and bar some exports from the country in an effort to persuade the Islamic republic to suspend its nuclear program. The vote could come today or tomorrow.
The seizure of British forces occurred in the Arabian Gulf at about 10:30 a.m. Iraq time Friday, the ministry said. It gave no details of the units and vessels involved. Britain is demanding the immediate return of the military personnel and vessels, and Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett has summoned the Iranian ambassador in London, the ministry said.
Crude oil rose to its highest in two weeks after the ministry issued its statement. Crude oil for May delivery advanced as much as 55 cents, or 0.9 percent, to $62.24 a barrel in after-hours electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange and was at $62.16 at 12:21 p.m. in London. Some analysts and traders have expressed concern that sanctions or a military campaign against Iran may disrupt oil supplies from the Middle East, the source of about a third of world's oil.
It's not the first time U.K. naval forces have clashed with Iran in the region. In June 2004, Iran held eight British servicemen for three days after capturing them in the Shatt al- Arab waterway that runs along the border between Iran and Iraq.
Iran, which also captured three British vessels in the 2004 incident, said the Britons were in Iranian waters and paraded them blindfolded on television, forcing them to make statements apologizing for their "mistake." The U.K. crews said they were escorted forcibly into Iranian waters.