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Iran seizure of British yachtsmen spotlights stakes in Strait of Hormuz

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Iran's seizure of five British racing yachtsmen who accidentally strayed into its waters in the Strait of Hormuz last week may merely be caught in an unfortunate, soon to be cleared-up misunderstanding.

"There is certainly no question of any malicious intent on the part of these five young people," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told reporters in London on Tuesday. The yacht is owned by the king of Bahrain and was traveling to race off Dubai. The yacht's manager told the Associated Press that the vessel had developed a propeller problem that led to its drifting into Iranian waters. Iran has thus far not provided any consular access to the arrested civilians.

But the arrests – Iran threatened Tuesday to prosecute the five Britons if it determines they were sailing with "bad intent" – highlight not only the increasing use of arrested foreigners as bargaining chips in Iran's standoff with the US and other Western powers over its nuclear program, but the country's desire to exert maximum control over the narrow and strategic strait.

Iran has been holding three young American hikers who strayed across the border from Iraqi Kurdistan for three months, and accused the trio of espionage last month.

Iran also seized and held 15 British sailors and marines it alleged entered its waters in 2007 while they were patrolling the Iraqi coast. It released them after two weeks.

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