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British Sailors En Route Home; Recalled Pet Food

Aired April 5, 2007 - 07:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR, AMERICAN MORNING: We'll be right back with you shortly. We want to get people back up to speed here at the top of the hour.
KIRAN CHETRY, CNN ANCHOR, AMERICAN MORNING: That's right. If you are just joining us, you are looking at live pictures from London where any minute we expect the 15 British sailors and Marines that were held for 13 days in Iran to be landing.

Certainly a joyous day. Some of the family members saying, we are really going to wait to celebrate until I actually see my son on English soil. That's going to be the time when he's in my arms. And of course, anxious, anxious days that have been going on for the past two weeks for the family members of those 15.

It was a stunning decision yesterday by President Ahmadinejad of Iran to release them. He called it a gift to the British people. There was no apology coming from Tony Blair. Something the Iranians had demanded. But it looks like all is well that ends well because in just a few moments we will see that British Airways flight touch down at Heathrow Airport, to relief immense from people around the world, but especially the families and loved ones of these 15 sailors and Marines.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Who would have expected it yesterday, this time yesterday you and I, Kiran, we were talking to Aneesh Raman, who spent more time in Tehran and as much time covering Iran as any Western journalist. And in his -- as he said, somewhat humbly, he didn't want to restate his prediction for yesterday, but he did not predict that Ahmadinejad would summarily release and offer freedom to these 15 British Marines and sailors. So, it was a surprise. It caught us all off guard.

There is the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, No. 10 Downing Street. Let's listen to him as we watch the plane come in.


TONY BLAIR, PRIME MINISTER OF BRITAIN: Just as we rejoice at the return of our 15 service personnel, so today we are also grieving and mourning for the loss of our soldiers in Basra, who were killed as a result of a terrorist act.

So on the one hand, we are glad that our service personnel return safe and unharmed from their captivity. But on the other, we return to the sober and ugly reality of what is happening through terrorism in Iraq, terrorism designed specifically to thwart the will of the international community, because our forces are there with full United Nations authority, and thwart obviously the will of the democratically elected government of Iraq that wants us there.

Now, it is far too early to say, and the particular terrorist act that killed our forces was an act committed by terrorists who were backed by any elements of Iranian regime. So, I make no allegation in respect to that particular incident, but the general pictures is, as I said before, is that there are elements at least of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq.

And I repeat, that our forces are there specifically at the request of the Iraqi government and with the full authority of the United Nations. So, this is maybe the right moment to reflect on our relationship with Iran.

And over the past two weeks we have pursued very much a dual- tract strategy, being open to bilateral dialogue with the Iranian regime, but at the same time mobilizing international support and pressure, whether in the United Nations or in Europe, with the United States of America, or our allies out in the region. In my view, it would be awfully naive to think our personnel would have been released unless both elements of the strategy had been present.

And that, I think, has got to continue to be our strategy in dealing with Iran. It is correct that over the past couple of weeks there have been new and interesting lines of communication opened up with the Iranian regime, and it is sensible for us to continue to pursue those. However, the international community has got to remain absolutely steadfast in enforcing its will, whether it s is in respect of nuclear weapons, or in respect of the support of any part of the Iranian regime for terrorism, particularly when directed against democratic governments.

And the choice, in a sense, is a choice that has to be made by Iran because, as I've said before, and I say again, the possibility of a different relationship with international community is there. But it has to be based on proper support for the will of that community. The choice in the end is one that Iran will have to make.

Once again, let me repeat my profound sympathy for the families of the soldiers who have lost their lives. They are very brave and committed people who are doing such vital and important work out there. Right.


CHETRY: We are listening to Tony Blair, the prime minister of Britain, in there talking a bit about not only this situation that's been resolved, 15 sailors and Marines back, as you see the plane has landed, but also touching on the tragedy of other troops lost in Basra, he said as a result of a terrorist attack there.

O'BRIEN: The plane has landed. As you can see there, quite plainly, and we are now going to watch the whole process of moving these sailors and Marines off the commercial airliner, onto buses and over to those helicopters that will take them to a military base in Great Britain, where they will begin a bit of a medical check-up. And as we say, that's just a routine kind of thing.

No reason to believe they were mistreated in any way. No one has said that in any way. But that is what will transpire now. Let's go back to Paula Hancocks, who is there and watched this all unfold. Is right there, near those helicopters.

What are you seeing, Paula?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN LONDON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, at this point we're around about 30 meters away from these two helicopters. We are seeing the British Airways flight, which contains those 15 British military personnel on board.

It's just taxiing around. We are expecting it to stop just around the corner, and then we will have that parade of 15 of them walking towards these military helicopters.

Now, security here, as you can imagine, is incredibly tight. There are armed police guards as far as the eye can see. The police have cleared this area all morning. They want to make sure these 15 get to the RAF base in Southwest England, an hour and a half away, as safely as possible.

Now, what we do know from a senior military official is there will be foreign office officials on board with helicopters with the 14 men, and the one woman. We also know there will be senior military officials. Whether the debrief start there's, we don't know. Certainly once they get to their Royal Air Force base, the military personnel here in Britain are going to want to know everything that happened. It is going to be an extensive debrief.

Now, at this point the plane has just turned the corner. We are expecting it to come to a standstill very shortly. And then the 15 military personnel thought to be in army fatigues, will be disembarking.

We know they are all sitting in the business class section of this particular plane. A couple of people -- Iranian businessman, in fact, was quoted in Tehran saying he had been asked to give up his seat and sit in economy, which he said he was delighted to, saying the people of Iran are also delighted that this has ended peacefully.

Also, the senior military official telling us that these 15 are really considered to be still on active duty. So until they get to this Royal Air Force base they will not be put at ease, if you like. They will still be considered part of the effort in the Middle East until they actually get to that point. And then, of course, they will finally be able to see their families -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Paula, first of all, a quick logistical question for you. Then I have a big picture question for you. First of all, you said the base is an hour and a half away. I trust you mean by car. Their flight will not be an hour and a half by helicopter, correct?

HANCOCKS: This is what we're being told by one military official, that by helicopter, it would be around an hour and a half. O'BRIEN: OK, all right.

HANCOCKS: We know they definitely will be in the helicopter.

O'BRIEN: OK. All right. That's -- OK, normally a four-hour drive, I'm told.

Let me ask you this, big picture here. Listening to Tony Blair. I hope you were able to hear him, but I'll just paraphrase what he was saying. He talked about this dual-track strategy, simultaneously opening a dialogue and at the same time kind of building up a kind of global pressure, if you will, on Iran. Sort of seems like carrots and sticks at the same time. Do you -- we don't know much about what the carrots are here, do we?

HANCOCKS: No, it is quite an interesting thing to say. He is not giving any details, but obviously pricking everyone's ears up and giving everybody something to be incredibly interested about.

What he was saying is what many people have also been noticing over the past 24 hours. There has been a new and interesting line of communication opened up between Iran and Britain. This is what Tony Blair, himself, said.

But, of course, what these carrots are, Tony Blair is not saying. The British government has insisted all along there has been no negotiation in the sense of giving the Iranians anything to guarantee the safety of the British personnel.

It has not been a give and take situation, they say. It certainly has not been any kind of prisoner swap. So, that really is an interesting thing for Tony Blair to say, whether or not -- I mean, nobody knows at this point what these carrots are going to be.

O'BRIEN: Paula Hancocks, stay close. We'll be back with you in just a moment -- Kiran.

CHETRY: Right now, we are going to take a look at some new video coming to us. This was from this morning, the new video of the sailors at the airport in Tehran before they were boarding the flight, and getting ready to get a chance to head back home.

They were whisked through the airport. They boarded the flight. It was a British Airways flight. The aircraft's business section was cleared for the sole use of the former captives, and those accompanying them. In fact, a lot of people were actually downgraded to economy class.

After that flight left Iranian television started showing more interviews and images of the group. They were wearing the civilian clothing, as you saw, drinking tea. And clutching colorful gift bags, a bit of irony there. As they certainly did not choose to be there, but they had some gift bags on behalf of the Iranian people. At least that was what the state-run television said to take back with them.

So, we will check back in with Paula Hancocks, who is at the airport in Heathrow. This is the video of them leaving -- or right before they left Iran. Now, of course, they're on terra firma, back in their home country, and probably very relieved.

Paula, do you know when the families will get a chance to finally sit down with them and really get a chance to catch up?

Hey, Paula, can you hear me?

There is some more live pictures from Heathrow right now, as the deplaning process is getting under way right now. I believe we have Paula. She may have trouble hearing us under the flapping of the choppers that were there.

O'BRIEN: Yes, that's quite a din there, as you can imagine, with the jet noise and choppers and everything.

The thing that's just sticking in my head is these parting gifts. That --

CHETRY: Persian sweets.

O'BRIEN: That is such an odd story in so many respects, but that just kind of puts the cherry on top of the sundae, in some respects. It will be interesting to hear them -- first of all, it will be interesting to see, I presume the military will put some restraint on what they have to say for a little while at least. But as time goes on, this story will unfold of what it was like to be held in this captivity for 13 days. I'm sure they will want to get a good solid debrief from them before it ends up in the media. It probably won't be too long before we hear details, which just kind of add even more oddities to this odd story.

CHETRY: Matthew Chance is actually in our London bureau right now with more on exactly what is going to happen after the sailors and Marines get a chance to deplane and then get flown to their military base in southwestern England.

That's where they will meet their families, right, Matthew?


It's a military base called Chivaner (ph), in an area of southwestern England called North Devon. That's where they will be debriefed. They will arrive there by helicopter, as Paula Hancocks is reporting. They will be debriefed by their military superiors, as well as foreign office officials. And then finally they will get the chance to reunite with their families.

It's has obviously been a very stressful period, nearly two weeks of captivity for the 15 sailors and Marines involved. But for their families as well, many of them across the country because they are drawn from families across Great Britain. They were watching closely the really strange press conference in Iranian capital, Tehran, yesterday and absolutely euphoric when Ahmadinejad -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, dropped this bombshell, with this surprise gift to the people of Britain, as he called it. One of the families, the family of Royal Marine Adam Sperry (ph) said it was the best Easter present they had ever received.

CHETRY: Yes, absolutely. Do we know anything about how far they were into their tour of duty? Are they going to be able to be home, or do they have to return in any way, shape or form in the future?

CHANCE: That's not clear. Certainly the ship from which they were operating out of, HMS Cornwall, had been in that area, the Shatt al-Arab, waters between Iraq and Iran for some time carrying out the same kinds of missions, kind of Coast Guard missions for several months, at least, before this incident with the Iranian security forces happened.

What will happen to these sailors and marines now, whether they will be turned around after a short period of leave and redeployed onto HMS Cornwall, it's not clear. Or whether there's going to be some kind of rotation and basically their current tour in Iraqi waters will be at an end. We just don't have that information at the moment.

CHETRY: Right. What is the feeling on the London street about their return? It was interesting because when Tony Blair spoke -- we, I think, expected him to be very euphoric about it. He wasn't. He actually started off by talking about grieving for soldiers that were killed in a terrorist attack recently in Basra.

CHANCE: I think that's because this attack that he is referring really happened over the course of just the last few hours. It's a big attack for the British, in that I think at least four British soldiers have been confirmed as dead in what Tony Blair referred to as a terrorist act.

I think what was interesting as well, he referred to the fact that they believe the people who carried out this terrorist attack were elements backed by the Iranian regime. So he did point out there was this kind of big difference, in the way that Iraq said it would behave and the way it actually behaves.

He also went on to say that Iran -- sorry, Iran behaves -- he said that Iran had a choice now about what kind of relationship it wanted with the international community. These two incidents, this attack in southern Iraq, and this -- this prisoner crisis with Britain really underlines the basis of that. It's up to Iran, he said, to change its behavior.

CHETRY: Was also interesting because what he talked about in that Basra attack, he brought up the -- really, the mission of the war in Iraq, almost as a reminder, I think, you know, speaking to the British people. Saying we have to remember this was terrorism designed to thwart the will of the international community. He said this is a U.N.-backed presence, that we're in Iraq now. And he also said it's thwarting the will of the democratically elected Iraqi government that wants us there.

CHANCE: Absolutely. This has been Tony Blair's real only retreat in all of this. He's come in for a lot of criticism over the past several years about his commitment to the war in Ira. But the fact is, it's now a U.N.-mandated British/American presence as well, in that country. It is also a presence which is mandated by the elected Iraqi government. Tony Blair wants to remind the people of Britain of that fact.

There's been a lot of euphoria, a lot of relief across Britain about the fact these marines and sailors have now been safely returned -- safely released from their imprisonment in Iran, and are now back on British soil. But there's a good deal of grumbling as well, about the way this was handled.

Tony Blair saying that, you know, his quiet diplomacy has paid off. And, indeed, they have produced these very positive results. But a lot of concern that Britain wasn't perhaps a bit tougher with Iran over this issue. Perhaps it looks weak now in the eyes of certainly people in Iran and certainly people who want to see weakness in Britain in the region.

CHETRY: Some great insight. Matthew Chance, thanks so much.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Aneesh Raman has spent an awful lot of time in Iran. And perhaps more than any Western television journalist. He is joining us this morning and has been helping us cover this story, watch this story from Amman, Jordan.

Aneesh, I was struck by Tony Blair just a little while ago. I don't know if you had a chance to hear it, but I just want to relay it to our viewers, talking about this dual-track strategy of opening a dialogue with the Iranian regime, but at the same time mobilizing international support and pressure.

He said at the end, he buttoned it up, "I think that has got to continue to be our strategy in dealing with Iran." He seems to be saying, hey, this is case in point for how to deal with the nuclear threat, that -- that Iran is presenting to the rest of the world what are your thoughts on that?

ANEESH RAMAN, CNN INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: Yeah. I think that's what Iran, Miles, wants to project out of the end of this standoff, as well. That diplomacy does gets rewarded by Tehran. I think that's why we had those big images come out of the Iranian capital yesterday.

It's interesting, though, the duel approach did not necessarily work. If you keep in mind the trajectory of the crises. At the start Iran wanted this to be resolved in a bilateral fashion between Tehran and London. When that other approach, of international pressure came about, when the British government got the U.N., the EU involved, Iran's neighbors involved. That is when we saw the release that was on the table, of Faye Turney, taken off the table. That's when we saw Iran really rise in rhetoric, publicly, in terms of a potential trail.

Iran lashed back. It didn't seem to amount to much in terms of getting Iran on the side of the British and finding some resolution. It was that quiet diplomacy that took place in the background between the two governments, directly, that seems to have done the trick. In the end Iran wanted that statement clear, that that sort of direct dialogue, not confrontation is something that it can respond to.

Keep in mind, Iran is backed into the corner on a number of issues, the nuclear dispute, alleged involvement in Iraq, which we just heard the prime minister just reference again in his statements a short time ago. It's overall involvement in the Middle East. A lot of the hard-liners feel it doesn't have much to lose in terms of international pressure. It's been sanctioned since 1979. It has just had another round of sanctions over it's nuclear defiance. And that Iran has to sort of posture itself as a regional power that must be dealt with directly, and in dialogue, for it to come on board to any sort of solution. So, the dual approach, while heralded by the prime minister, it really wasn't both approaches that worked, it was the direct bilateral talks that seemed to have done the trick.

O'BRIEN: But you have to ask the question, Aneesh, would the quiet diplomacy, the dialogue portion of that dual track work on its own in a vacuum, without the other component, without the pressure? The Iranians, obviously, did not respond on the surface well to the pressure. But nonetheless did it make it possible for that dialogue to work?

RAMAN: I think it did inasmuch as it changes the debate within Iran. Iran is not a monolithic power structure. There are various power centers within the country. We have seen the hard-liners really rise in power over the past year or so, since Ahmadinejad took office as president.

But we have seen in more recent time, I think the pressure is part of this, a pragmatic view really emerge among the moderates in Iran. We have seen the pragmatists really take control of this standoff and find a resolution on the nuclear dispute. Some more moderate rivals of the Iranian president are saying, look, these are very sensitive times. Iran needs to be careful about how it proceeds. We have seen Ahmadinejad, himself, really a bit more subdued in rhetoric than we saw at the start of his term.

So, I think the pressure does one thing. It changes the discussion within the country. It lead, I think, to Ahmadinejad's hard line supporters not winning big in city council elections that happened last December, in as much as it changes the dialogue it changes the policy of the Iranian government.

But in a public sense when Iran is confronted with pressure, it coalesces together. The various political entities and there is a sense that Iran cannot and should not back down.


O'BRIEN: I think we are beginning to see -- there they are. There they are on their way to those awaiting helicopters. The 15 marines and sailors beginning that hour and a half-long -- there they are, navy and marine uniforms, depending on which branch of service they're in. The fatigue-like cami-outfit marine and then the blue- topped uniform, of course, of the Royal Navy, out of their odd suits that they were given.

CHETRY: Yes, very strange. Faye doesn't have to wear her head scarf that she had on in a lot of those pictures.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, she's out of the covered zone now. There they are, they're going to do a little bit of posing. I don't know if Paula Hancocks is in the loop with us right now, but she has to be enjoying this scene, because she is close to that right now, as they pose for those pictures there. That's the picture that just about everyone in Great Britain, and pretty much all the world, has been hoping to see these past couple of weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks all, we can all see them and well. Faye Turney with a big smile on her face.

M. O'BRIEN: Are we hearing a reporter there? I think we're hearing a reporter from another news agency there, as they begin the process of -- I don't know if they have their parting gifts there in those bags. But on their way to those helicopters and that hour and a half flight, which will take them about 210 miles away from where they stand now to a base in North Devon between the town of Barnstable and Braunton (ph), for those of you familiar with Great Britain.

Off they go. And as we watch them take that next step towards that reunion with family members, having popped a few champagne corks already on the airplane, of course, this will be a multi-day celebration. I suspect a few pints will be raised in their honor today.

CHETRY: Yes, I wouldn't doubt that. How long of a flight is it from Tehran to Britain?

M. O'BRIEN: Don't know the exact length of that flight.

CHETRY: Because they look actually pretty well-rested, given the scope of the ordeal they have gone through for the past two weeks. Yeah. At that base is where they will be reunited with their families. That's where their families are awaiting. They wanted it to be at the Royal Marine barracks there, because they wanted to have a chance to reunite in privacy without having to worrying about all the cameras, which are no doubt at Heathrow. Because so many people watched every second of this and want to know they are safe and sound, which we are happy to report today; they all looked great.

M. O'BRIEN: Yeah. They look great. Hale and hardy, and certainly quite pleased. I saw a few grins. On they go, and for appropriately a private reunion with family members. I think the Brits get some high marks for stagecraft giving the media an opportunity to see them, on their way towards their meeting with the families, which will be out of the range of cameras, which of course, is appropriate given all they have been through.

Let's move closer to the center of London, right to the center of London, as a matter of fact, and No. 10 Downing Street. Robin Oakley is there, having listened to the prime minister just a few moments ago -- Robin.

ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN LONDON BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Miles, very interesting change of tone from Tony Blair, compared with the caution he was showing yesterday while the British captives were still on Iranian soil. Today he has been much more belligerent almost, in talking once again about Iranian links with terrorism in Iraq, linking his relief and pleasure at the return to Britain of those captives with his regret at the deaths of more British servicemen in Iraq.

And while he was careful to say he wasn't saying this particular incident in Iraq of British deaths had any involvement of Iranian instigators, he was suggesting that Iran was heavily involved with the militias in Iraq.

He was saying is that Iran basically had a choice now. Yes, Britain was pleased to have new channels of communication with Iran, which had opened up over the affair of the captives. And it would try to make use of those, but Iran had to decide what kind of position it wanted in the world. If it went on to be a sponsor of terrorism elsewhere, then he was making it clear there would continue to be an unfortunate relationship with Iran. And that it wouldn't be welcomed into the world community.

Also Tony Blair made pains to stress that saying the dual system of negotiation, talking directly to the Iranians, and putting pressure on them through the U.N. Security Council and the European Union, was what he believed had brought results, Miles.

O'BRIEN: What's interesting, as a matter of fact, he said he would be naive to think our personnel would have been released unless both elements of the strategy had been present. We were talking to Aneesh Raman in Amman, don't know if you had a chance to hear that, Robin. You were probably busy there doing your job -- as we look at some of these helicopters as they get ready to take off there at Heathrow.

Aneesh said -- and he's been in Iran an awful lot. He said that it is his view that the Iranians did not respond well to pressure, but responded to the quiet diplomacy. We don't know the full extent of what was offered and said, of course. Having said that, Tony Blair, as you say, kind of ratcheted up the bellicosity a little bit this morning.

OAKLEY: I think Aneesh is absolutely right. It was quite clear that the Iranians did resent Tony Blair, as it were, internationalizing this conflict, taking it to the U.N. Security Council, taking it to the EU. They kept saying, look, this is a bi- lateral affair to be sorted out between the two countries. And I think they feel there is a lack of respect when Tony Blair takes it to the international scene like that.

And it was noticeable yesterday that he was talking about his respect for the ancient civilization of Iran. And for his respect for the Iranian people. There is a respect issue involved in all of this. And, as you say, Miles, Britain did seem to get the better results when it concentrated on those private conversations directly with Iran.

But, of course, that was the lesson that Iran very much wanted to put across, I think to the wider world scene, over issues like the U.N. pressure on Iran, over uranium enrichment. Talk to us directly. That's probably addressed as much to the United States as to anybody else. Talk to us directly. Don't threaten us through the international institutions. That's what they're trying to put across. Tony Blair, today, trying to counter that to a degree, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Robin Oakley at No. 10 Downing Street. For those of you just tuning in, at the bottom of the hour, it's been about 20 -- let's see, they came in about 27 minutes now for those of you keeping exact time since those British marines and sailors touched down at Heathrow Airport, back on British soil.

What you are seeing there is kind of a hard picture, if you have not been watching. That's right through the cracked open door of one of two helicopters that will soon alight and take them on an hour and a half flight to their base in Great Britain, where they will meet with their families and friends and begin the -- I wouldn't say begin the revelry because we are told it began on the flight, too.

CHETRY: Yes, they were popping some champagne on that flight. They got to sit in business class on that commercial airline, a British Airways jet. There is another shot of them, just from a couple minutes ago, coming back.

Miles, you said if you're counting the minutes, I'm sure family members are, they realize they have to get loaded onto those choppers and then they still have about what, 90 more minutes, before they land at the base and get reunited -- and debriefed.

M. O'BRIEN: I'm sure the families would love it if those helicopters had after burn today. But 90 minutes, they can wait 90 minutes because they know what is at the end of that 90-minute wait. CNN's Paula Hancocks was there. She was watching as they lined up for that photo opportunity. What did you detect Paula?

PAULA HANCOCKS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, I've got to say, they all looked in very good health. However they will be having a physical but none of them showed any visible signs of being injured or being traumatized in any way. Obviously there will be a physical after this to find out if they are, in fact, as good as they look. They have to do a little tour for the world media, just stopping in front of the helicopters, standing and posing, if you'd like, for their photo shoot. I'm sure all they want do is get on those helicopters, fly off and see their families. But at this point the final preparations are being made. They are all on board these helicopters. And, of course, this is just the first stop for them back on British soil. They certainly looked happy to be on British soil. And they just looked in very good health.

O'BRIEN: I should say and good spirits as well, back in their uniforms, as we suspected. Paula, the next steps for them, do we know - are they going to get a leave of some undetermined length of time? How soon before they might be back on duty?

HANCOCKS: Well, to be fair, this is just speculation on my behalf, but I can't imagine that the British military is not going to allow them a few days at least with their families. Even though these 14 men and one woman looked in good shape, they seem to be healthy. They don't seem to be showing visible signs of trauma. They have been through a lot in the last two weeks. So certainly, I'm sure, that once the military has debriefed the 15 of them, they will likely be taken off duty, given some leave so that they can see their families. Certainly it's been very stressful for the families themselves as well, 15 families around Britain would have been breathing a huge sigh of relief as they saw those 15 British military personnel touch down on British soil. So now they've got an hour and a half in the air, are on the way to be debriefed, to have that physical and then to meet their families finally.

O'BRIEN: Paul, have they given you any sort of indication -- obviously the military gets first dibs here on any sort of debrief before the media gets a chance to hear their stories. Do you know what the ground rules are and whether we are going to hear from any of these Marines and sailors any time soon?

HANCOCKS: I spoke to a senior military official about two hours ago. He's actually down here. He said that what is likely to happen is in a few hours time, maybe four hours time from now, the ministry of defense is hoping to release some still photographs of the trip from Tehran to London. So we're expecting to see some shots of these particular British military personnel whether or not they're holding champagne, who knows. But that is rumored to have been the way that they were (ph) on the way over. But then also likely to get some point of access either to the 15 or to the military on Friday or possibly Thursday afternoon. You can see now, the wait for these 15, the painful wait just sitting on the tarmac here appears to be over. They are moving off towards where they will be taking off, a little further away from where we're standing at the VIP lounge here in Heathrow. So in around an hour and a half from now, 90 minutes, we should be seeing live pictures of them arriving at a Royal Air Force base in southwest England.

O'BRIEN: Off they go. Set your clocks for about 90 minutes as they make their way to the southwest and that base and that reunion. As Paula pointed out, we will see those still pictures, but still unclear when we actually might hear from them. As far as you know Paula, there's no press conference slated where we would have an opportunity, where the media would have an opportunity to ask them questions about their ordeal?

HANCOCKS: At this point Miles, the ministry of defense isn't giving a specific time or date for a press conference or in fact if there is going to be one. What we did hear from this senior military official was we are likely to be able to talk to them at some point Friday, possibly Thursday afternoon. But at this point their priority is to debrief these 15, to find out exactly what happened, any diplomatic issues they have to tie up. And of course they want to give these guys and this one lady a chance to see their loved ones and to make sure that they are in physically good shape. It is likely that we will be able to talk to them on Friday, but of course at this point, no exact time, venue or date.

O'BRIEN: And as far as today goes, we know once they take off here, it will be about 90 minutes as they head to the southwest in those Royal Navy helicopters. Once they get on the ground, will they meet immediately with their families or do they have to go to these medical check-ups and so forth first? That would be excruciating, I would think.

HANCOCKS: You would think so, yes. You kind of hope that they would be allowed a quick hug before they go off for their debrief certainly as the families have been waiting for so long. Obviously these are operational details that the ministry of defense really does seem very reticent to give out. We know that the Royal Air Force base is going to be under incredibly high security. At any time it's at the high security, but certainly this time it'll be under high security. We are likely to see live pictures of them landing and then going into the base itself. My personal thought would be they would be allowed to have a quick hug before they go off for the official business.

O'BRIEN: Let's hope so. Of course, where you were, there was an awfully tight cordon of security as well. Did they discuss any sort of specific threat or was it just the general concern that in this world with terrorism as it is, that it is something that needs to be done?

HANCOCKS: The area where we are now is about 20-30 meters away from where those helicopters were just a few minutes ago. This is an incredibly tight security, highly restricted area. This is the VIP area, this particular area. Very few people are allowed into it. It was tight security to get in. You can probably still see pictures of armed police, as far as the eye can see really. I can see probably about seven or eight in front of me. Then you turn around, they are everywhere. So this is incredibly high security. It wouldn't be a particular threat. This is how it is always here. Certainly over the last few years since other attacks across Europe, there has been higher security, but it is always like this in this area at Heathrow.

O'BRIEN: I think that's the longest taxi I've ever seen by any helicopter. They can go straight up anytime they want, but that's what they are doing. They're taxiing. We're going to watch them as they take off and make their way toward that base. In the meantime, (INAUDIBLE)

PHILLIPS: About 30 minutes ago we heard from the prime. Tony Blair came out of his home and office at 10 Downing Street in London to speak a little bit about how all of this happened and his thoughts on the release of the hostages. So let's listen.


TONY BLAIR, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: Any notion that had we simply sat back and not mobilized the international community, the support of Europe, the United Nations, the United States of America, other partners out in the region, we would be in a better position. These are judgments that you make. My judgment is that it would be extraordinary naive to think that's the case. Now in the end, yes, it was a bilateral dialogue that resolved this, but I think the dual track of having international pressure mobilized and the door open to that dialogue without any deals, without any negotiation, I think it was the duel tract that delivered this. But these are judgments people make. But my experience of these situations is that you need to create the context in which you are likely to get the best outcome in a bilateral way.


PHILLIPS: Robin Oakley joins us right now and Robin, you have seen many, many discussions and speeches and talks that Tony Blair has given. He seemed a little tense. His demeanor didn't seem the same that we would think from seeing these 15 sailors and Marines freed and healthy after their ordeal.

ROBIN OAKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No, of course he was talking about further deaths of British servicemen in Iraq and linking that event with the return of the captives. But as you say, there was a certain amount of tension about Tony Blair's performance today. Remember that he is not being universally praised in Britain for his handling of this affair. It was a very difficult one for him as prime minister because the Iranians held the cards. They held the 15 captives and certainly military action was out of the question. There was only a diplomatic route available to Tony Blair.

But the Iranians of course have argued look, you got your results by talking to us bilaterally. You didn't need to do all this stuff, going after the UN Security Council, going off to the European Union. So Tony Blair was coming out today and justifying the tactics he used. First diplomacy, then internationalizing it, then back to quiet diplomacy which got the results. He's trying to counter the Iranian arguments which they want to see more widely applied in the world, telling everybody, come and talk to us about our uranium enrichment program, stop threatening us with sanctions. That was the underlying message from President Ahmadinejad.

So Tony Blair definitely taking business back to -- or business as usual, you could say was his motto today, reminding the world it's not just cuddly nice, Mr. Ahmadinejad who's released the captives. It's an Iranian regime which supports terrorism in other parts of the world Kyra.

PHILLIPS: He's left in this preposterous position it almost seems where he is defending against Ahmadinejad and the regime that's actually broken the laws of the international community, not only with the taking of these 15 sailors and Marines, but also as it relates to the world guidelines for nuclear enrichment.

OAKLEY: Indeed, yes. On the question of the capture of the captives, there is that basic argument between Britain and Iran. Britain insists that they were all the time in Iraqi waters. Iran insists they were in Iranian waters. And it will be interesting to see if there is some kind of follow-up discussion between experts on both sides to see if they can get something agreed about the disputed boundaries to prevent an episode of this kind coming around again. But as you say, there is the wider background of the uranium enrichment program, which many countries in the western world believe is leading on to a weapons program and which Iran of course insists is strictly for civil nuclear energy purposes. PHILLIPS: Right.

OAKLEY: Tony Blair did say today, well, Iran does have that right. We'll help them if we can be sure that it is just for civil nuclear energy. Kyra.

PHILLIPS: And at the same time, back to the discussion about exactly where in the coordinates which were released but many Middle East experts familiar with that area say it's so difficult to be able to tell in the Persian Gulf and especially in that area whether they're in Iraq or Iranian waters. But the protocol, the international protocol again there is not to take people captive if they enter into your waters, rather normally you get a military escort out of that area or a warning.

OAKLEY: Precisely. You would escort them back to the waters that they ought to be in. And there did appear to be an element of premeditation about all this. Why weren't the Iranian craft, which took the British captives and their two boats, equipped with cameras so that they were able to show pictures later on of this happening? That doesn't sort of look like somebody who had suddenly strayed into waters and was intercepted by a patrolling force. It did look like a premeditated act, Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Very true. It was interesting when Tony Blair talked about the international community and getting them involved, because Syria, who is a close ally of Iran is getting into the fray, saying we also had something to do with this. The quote from the foreign minister is that Syria exercised a quiet diplomacy to solve this problem. What do you make of that?

OAKLEY: An interesting claim from Syria. We don't have any proof of that claim. But one little interesting sidelight on all of that is that Nigel Sheinweld (ph), Tony Blair's foreign affairs adviser here in Downing Street was the man who was sent to Damascus a little while ago to open up a dialogue with Syria. And basically say to Syria, look, you, too, have got the choice. Come on board and join the rest of the international community and work against terrorism and you can have a different kind of future with us. Now Nigel Sheinweld was the man who was involved in the key conversations with Iran, with Dr. Ali Larinjani (ph) of the Iran national security council which led -- was a turning point in leading to the release of the captives. Nigel Sheinweld incidentally is going to be Britain's ambassador in Washington later this year. So he'll be taking some interesting experiences across the Atlantic with him Kyra.

PHILLIPS: That's also was very interesting, some great insight from Robin Oakley this morning in London. Thanks so much.

O'BRIEN: Let's turn our attention now to Hale (ph), England, southwest tip of Great Britain. And in that town of Hale there are some pretty excited people. We talked to one of them just a little while ago. This is -- the hometown hero there, Nathan Somers (ph), who is a Royal Navy sailor, among the 15 on those helicopters headed in that general direction right now. Joining us from that town right now is CNN's Max Foster who has spent some time with some happy family members already today. Max, what's the mood there? I guess that's kind of an obvious question.

MAX FOSTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes. It's a huge relief. If you imagine that this time yesterday they were living in absolute fear. They didn't know whether or not they were going to see Nathan back again in this country. They didn't know whether he was going to be safe. Then yesterday around the middle of the day UK time, we had this surprise announcement coming from the Iranian president. Before they knew it, they were heading back, this morning UK time, back to Heathrow airport. We know that they just left Heathrow airport and they're going to head, the whole 15 of them, towards a military base somewhere down here in the southwest of England where they're going to be questioned and really debriefed by their superiors. Everyone here absolutely thrilled, of course. They were partying as we said late into the night in British style in a British pub, having a few drinks, that they are going to be doing the same again tonight, I suspect.

O'BRIEN: I suspect it will go on for a few days at the least. This is a small town, tight-knit kind of community. Somebody like Nathan Somers obviously known by a lot of people. This means a lot to the whole town, doesn't it?

FOSTER: Sure. This is a small coastal town as you can see, best known for surfing, really. We have been speaking to lots of local journalists who operate here and they say this has just been a huge story for this small town. Everyone has really rallied together and one of the local reporters was describing to me how you saw people literally running down the street and cheering yesterday when we had this news coming out from Iran, this surprise announcement that they would be released. So yeah, an incredible feeling here. Everyone has been drawn into it, everyone really wanting to hear from Nathan himself as well. They want to know what happened. What's behind those statements that we saw an Iranian TV?

O'BRIEN: Let's just elaborate on that for just a moment. Those statements that he was clearly under duress as he was apologizing, clearly a coercive kind of situation there. I assume that people see that for what it is.

FOSTER: Well, that's the suggestion. Other people are really looking at this group and saying they did actually look very comfortable. Maybe they weren't fully aware of the whole situation. It's difficult to believe but the family here of Nathan have suggested that perhaps he wasn't himself on those -- on those images. But a lot of families not actually anything because they wanted to stay out of this, leave it to the diplomats, leave it to the politicians. Only one family has come out and suggested that the British politicians haven't handled this brilliantly, Tony Blair perhaps using his language a bit too strongly in certain situations and inflaming the whole problem. But certainly there is a feeling of course that they were coerced into these statements. And they want to find out how that was done.

O'BRIEN: It's an interesting point. Generally speaking, we were talking to Paula Hancocks just a while ago at Heathrow and she was saying a lot of the tabloids, the headlines along with the euphoria headlines was something to the effect of humiliation. In other words, the Iranians got the better of the Brits. Do people at Hale care much about that or is the proof in the pudding there? Nathan Somers is coming home and that's fine by them.

FOSTER: It's a strange thing. I think everyone here is so caught up in the situation, the personal story, they haven't thought too much about the international politics. They just see the Iranians as a nation who have taken captive their loved son, if you'd like. But a lot of the newspaper commentary here is suggesting, as you suggested that perhaps it hasn't been brilliantly handled. And perhaps we were looking too much behind the scene negotiations about prison swaps, prisoner swaps and that sort of thing when really all the Iranians were doing were trying to win a PR battle and actually they did it brilliantly. This is a suggestion that Robin Oakley was coming up with from Downing Street as well. It's interesting -- it will be interesting to see how that plays out, Tony Blair saying in his statement of course that people aren't going to fall for this type of theater.

O'BRIEN: Max Foster who is in Hale, England where there will soon be a renewed party. The party's already begun in many respects. Thank you for your time Max. Kyra.

PHILLIPS: And we're going to keep monitoring the breaking news in Britain, the arrival of the 15 sailors and Marines safe and sound after 13 days inside of Iran.

Also ahead, we're going to take a closer look at the behind the scenes diplomacy that led to them getting out of Iran.

And we're also going to live in the holy land. All week, we have been visiting different sacred sites looking for the truth about Jesus, today the garden tomb. Why so many believe it's the place where Jesus was buried. You are watching AMERICAN MORNING. The most news in the morning is on CNN.


PHILLIPS: We have all been watching the breaking news unfold all morning long. The 15 British sailors and Marines back home. They arrived in Heathrow airport in London about an hour ago. And they are now headed to a Marine base about an hour and a half helicopter ride for a reunion with their family and friends.

O'BRIEN: Catching up now on some other headlines this morning, the U.S. Army is investigating whether two soldiers who died in combat were actually killed by friendly fire. It happened in Iraq's Anbar province February 2nd. The army says it initially told the families of Specialist Allen (ph) McPeek and Private Matthew Zeimer that they were killed by enemy fire. But an investigation proved otherwise.

PHILLIPS: The parents of John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban want President Bush to commute his 20-year sentence. Lindh was captured in Afghanistan by American forces back in 2001. He was charged with conspiring to kill Americans and support terrorists. He then pleaded guilty to lesser offenses. Now the seven-year sentence for Australian David Hicks, he got that for similar offenses. So Lindh's parents say they want their son's 20-year sentence commuted.

O'BRIEN: This morning on Capitol Hill, they are waging a partisan battle over semantics. Lawmakers bickering over the term global war on terrorism, a favorite of the Bush administration. Democrats want the phrase removed from the 2008 defense budget. They say the phrase is used to justify spending for the war in Iraq. Republicans are calling the debate over words absurd.

PHILLIPS: There's another twist in the case of the fired U.S. attorneys. One of them, David Iglesias, claims that he was fired for missing work but he was serving in the Navy reserve. In a Justice Department document explaining why he was fired, Iglesias was called a quote, absentee landlord. A Federal watchdog agency is now investigating.

And there's more upsetting news for pet owners this morning. Health officials in Oregon are saying that they think 38 animals at least have died after eating bad tainted pet food. That one state tally is more than twice the official national death toll so far. And there are now calls for a congressional investigation amid the allegations that the Canadian pet food maker knew about the sick animals, yet still waited weeks to announce a recall. One pet owner from Oregon is just heart sick. She and was unaware of the recall and she tried to entice her sick cat with even more tainted food.


ANGELA BABB, PET OWNERS: I made the mistake of pouring the little packets on top of her kibbles thinking that she would eat some food and then not knowing at the time there was any issue with the food.


PHILLIPS: It's been an upsetting story and one many far. So far, the FDA is sticking with its 14 confirmed pet deaths.

Also the FDA's chief vet was supposed to appear with us this morning. It's the second day in a row that the FDA has canceled. We are hoping to have him on tomorrow.

O'BRIEN: All this week we are looking for the truth about Jesus live from the holy land. Each day of the week we are visiting a different sacred site. In Jerusalem this morning, CNN's Atika Shubert once again there, this time at the garden tomb. Atika.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right Miles. Yesterday we took you to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is believed to be where Jesus is buried. But today we are at the garden tomb which also claims to be another spot where Jesus may have been buried. As you can probably see from the scene here, it's still very popular with many Christians, particularly Protestants who want to come and see the exact place where Jesus is said to have been buried. But archaeologists may have a different view.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SHUBERT (voice-over): The garden tomb stands under a skull- shaped hill, beside a tranquil garden with a number of ancient tombs just as the bible describes the tomb of Jesus, but historians and archaeologists say something is amiss.

FATHER JEROME MURPHY O'CONNOR, BIBLICAL SCHOLAR: Nobody believes that it has any authenticity as a historical site.

SHUBERT: These tombs date hundreds of years before the time of Jesus. Because the book of John says that Jesus' tomb was newly made, it can't be the older tombs found here. In fact, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is widely believed to be the most likely location of Jesus' tomb. Why then is the garden tomb so popular, especially with Protestants?

O'CONNOR: A lot of Protestants believe in the garden tomb precisely because the Christian groups who own the Holy Sepulcher won't let them pray there.

SHUBERT: The garden tomb is not the only alternative. A new documentary by American film maker James Cameron argues that a recently discovered tomb with the inscription Jesus, son of Joseph is the right place. Archaeologists point out that Jesus was such a common name there are multiple tombs with the name Jesus.

STEPHEN PFANN, HOLY LAND UNIVERSITY: Seventy five percent of the population had either one or another of the 16 names that we're talking about right now. This simply is no great consequence to find a Jesus son of Joseph.


SHUBERT: Now guides here at the garden tomb point out that Christians believe that Jesus was resurrected and so they say it shouldn't matter the exact location of Jesus' burial place. Instead they say the garden tomb here shows what his tomb may have looked like and offers from the garden here a tranquil place for spiritual reflection. Miles

O'BRIEN: Atika, tomorrow is Good Friday. Where will you be then?

SHUBERT: Tomorrow we will be actually at the Via dela Rosa (ph), also called the way of sorrows and that is traditionally hailed to be the route that Jesus walked to his crucifixion.

O'BRIEN: Atika Shubert with a fascinating series, thank you.

Still to come this morning, our continuing breaking news coverage of the release and the return home of those British Marines and sailors. Keep it right here on CNN. The most news in the morning is right here.



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