Browne takes rap over sailors row

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Defence secretary Des Browne has today faced MPs over his controversial decision to allow two of the sailors released by Iran to sell their stories.

Amid pressure from the Conservatives to resign if he failed to give a "full account", Mr Browne launched a review into the chain of events which allowed crew members from HMS Cornwall to sell their stories to the media following their release by Iran

Speaking in the Commons this afternoon, Mr Browne accepted responsibility for the situation which developed over the Easter weekend and led to much criticism from opposition MPs, former army chiefs and some sections of the media.

But the defence secretary's statement failed to do enough to prevent his opposite number on the Conservative bench from calling for his resignation.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said that the minister's position was "becoming untenable" because he could no longer lead the armed forces.

But Mr Browne was adamant that he remains the right man to lead Britain's defence services.

"I have described to the house my involvement in this process and indeed that of the prime minister [Tony Blair]," he told MPs after his statement.

"I have said that I have made a mistake and if this has made people question the hard-earned reputation of the armed forces then I regret it."

To Mr Fox's suggestion that he had not made a full enough apology, Mr Browne said: "If he wants me to say sorry then I am happy to do so."

The sailors, 14 men and one woman, were captured by Iran's Revolutionary Guard in the Gulf on March 23rd after it was claimed they were in Iranian waters. Upon release the Royal Navy personnel were initially allowed to sell their stories to the media, a decision criticised by families who have lost relatives in service.

Although Mr Browne accepted responsibility for the decision at the time and announced that the sale of further such interviews would not be permitted in light of the criticism, calls for him to go have continued during the parliamentary recess.

Mr Browne was today surrounded by many cabinet members as he delivered his speech in an apparent show of support, while Mr Blair earlier said he had full confidence in his minister.

Two reviews were announced in the Commons today, but Mr Browne was at pains to insist that there would be "no witch-hunt".

Governor general of Gibraltar and retired Royal Marine, Lieutenant General Sir Rob Fulton, will lead an inquiry into the operational procedures which led to the sailors being taken captive while a separate review will be led by an "independent figure with wide media experience" into the dealings with the media over the crisis.

"I take responsibility for what happened over last weekend," Mr Browne said in his statement.

"I have acted to put it right. I have acted to make sure we learn the lessons of the whole episode, in a manner that allows for full parliamentary scrutiny. But as we go through this process, we should remember the most important point in all this, which is that we got our people back, safe, and on our terms."

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