Answers demanded over sailors' stories

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Defence secretary Des Browne will be asked to explain why the government allowed two British sailors to speak to newspapers about being held captive in Iran.

The Conservatives have blasted the decision to permit Leading Seaman Faye Turney and Able Seaman Arthur Batchelor to talk to the media as "complete incompetence".

The pair were among 15 Royal Navy personnel released by Tehran last week after a major diplomatic row about whether they had illegally entered Iranian waters on March 23rd.

Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials initially gave the green light to the interviews, but have now moved to prevent any further accounts being given amid a growing furore about the government's handling of the crisis.

Tory defence spokesman Liam Fox has confirmed that Mr Browne will be asked to explain "who made these decisions, at what stage and why" when parliament convenes again after the Easter recess.

"The whole situation relating to the captive servicemen coming home has been handled appallingly," Mr Fox said.

"The Ministry of Defence has managed to lose public sympathy for our sailors and marines, and cause division within the ranks of the armed forces, while serving members of the armed forces have, in effect, been put up for auction in the most horribly undignified fashion, something that has not gone unnoticed overseas."

Downing Street has today refused to comment on suggestions that prime minister Tony Blair had a personal role in the decision to let the sailors speak to the media, but former defence chiefs have led criticism of the way the situation was handled.

Mr Fox suggested that "New Labour's obsession with news management trumped the issues of dignity, professionalism and discipline" and Sir Michael Martin, the former adjutant general and UN commander in Bosnia, echoed those thoughts.

"In my view, the decision to treat the returning hostages as heroes from the outset, can only have come from Downing Street - for I cannot believe that any service chief would have signed up to a policy that is so ultimately damaging to the military ethos," he told the London Evening Standard.

"There would, however, be a clear political advantage for Blair, who had so evidently mishandled the initial diplomatic situation, and who had been continually outmanoeuvred by [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad throughout the crisis, to receive the returnees as heroes."

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