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UK sailors reunited with families

Story Highlights

NEW: Captain told Sky News gathering intelligence on Iran part of duties
• 15 British service members reunited with families after return to UK from Iran
• British PM Blair says no diplomatic deal done to secure their release
• Blair says "new channels of communication" opened with Iranian regime
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Fifteen British service members detained last month in Iran have been reunited with their families after flying home from Tehran.

"The past two weeks have been very difficult, but by staying together as a team, we kept our spirits up, drawing great comfort from the knowledge that our loved ones would be waiting for us on our return to the UK," they said in a joint statement released Thursday.

The group of sailors and marines landed at London's Heathrow Airport around midday following a six-hour flight before being transferred by helicopter to a military base in Chivenor, southwestern England. (Watch the former detainees back on British soil Video)

"It is only now that we have learned of the enormous public support we have all enjoyed in the UK and we wish to thank everyone for their thoughts, kind words and prayers. It means so much to us all," the statement said.

Video showed the group, still in uniform, laughing and hugging family members. Some posed for pictures while others talked on cell phones. They were also due to undergo debriefings and medical examinations. (Watch former detainees reunite with friends and families Video)

Speaking in Downing Street as the British Airways flight carrying the 15 landed in London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed their release, announced by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a "gift" on Wednesday, but reiterated that no diplomatic deals had been done to secure their release.

Blair said the group's homecoming was a reason to "rejoice" but noted that their arrival back to the UK came amid news of the deaths of four British soldiers in Iraq.

"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," he said. (Watch Blair's remarks on the 15's release Video)

Blair said the group's sudden release vindicated the UK's "dual-track strategy" of pursuing bilateral dialogue while mobilizing international pressure, adding that their return had been secured "without any deal, without any negotiation, without any side agreement of any nature whatsoever."

New channels

He said the crisis had opened up new channels of communication with Tehran that it would be "sensible" to pursue, and he said it was the "right moment" to reflect on relations with Iran.

"But there cannot be any misunderstanding of the basis upon which that communication takes place," said Blair. "We have to hold absolutely firm in relation to support from any aspect of the Iranian regime for terrorism."

Captain: We gathered intelligence on Iran

Responding to the claim by Ahmadinejad that the UK had sent a letter of apology to Tehran vowing not to intrude into Iranian territorial waters, Blair noted that the allegation was "nothing new" since British forces should not have been in Iranian waters, adding "obviously it's our contention that they weren't," in reference to the 15 marines and sailors.

However, the captain of the 15 said in an interview with British TV network Sky News that gathering intelligence on Iranian naval activity was a standard part of their duties.

Royal Navy Capt. Chris Air told Sky News five days before the crew was seized that patrols regularly encountered fishing boats in the area and talked to their crews about guarding against terrorism and piracy.

"Secondly, it's to gather int [intelligence]. If they do have any information, because they're here for days at a time, they can share it with us, whether it's about piracy or any sort of Iranian activity in the area," Air told Sky News.

"Obviously we're right by the buffer zone with Iran," Air added.

Sky News said on its Web site that it withheld the story until after the sailors' release to avoid giving the Iranians evidence for prosecuting the captives. (Timeline)

Blair also dismissed suggestions that any deal had been made involving the release of Iranians held in Iraq.

"Let me make it absolutely clear: No, there are no agreements about any Iranian elements that may be held in Iraq because they're being held in Iraq as a result of the wrongful interference with the business in Iraq," Blair said.

Carrying large duffel bags and brightly patterned gift bags, the detainees strolled onto the tarmac after arriving at Heathrow -- the sailors wearing blue uniforms and the marines in fatigues -- and briefly lined up for a photo op.

Earlier, they were seen off from Tehran by Britain's ambassador to Iran, Geoffrey Adams, Iran's state-run IRIB network reported.

Before boarding, the Britons were pictured receiving and inspecting gifts given to them on Ahmadinejad's behalf. (Watch how Iran's PR plan unfolded Video)

Big party

Meanwhile, friends and family of one of the detained sailors, Nathan Summers, are planning "a big party" in the small town of Hayle, southwestern England, to celebrate his release, Summers' grandmother April Rawsthorne told CNN's "American Morning" on Thursday.

"We're a large family, and we have loads of friends," she said. "We're all going to get together and have a really good night out." (Watch Summers' friends and family raise their glasses in joy Video)


British service members are reunited with family members and friends at a military base Thursday.


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