Iran frees 10 detained U.S. Navy sailors

(NBC NEWS) – Ten U.S. sailors detained by Iran were released early Wednesday, officials said.

This picture released by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, shows detained American Navy sailors in an undisclosed location in Iran. Iranian state television is reporting that all 10 U.S. sailors detained by Iran after entering its territorial waters have been released. Iran's Revolutionary Guard said the sailors were released Wednesday after it was determined that their entry was not intentional. (Sepahnews via AP)
Click here to see more photos (Sepahnews via AP)

The sailors — nine men and one woman — were held overnight on Iran’s Farsi Island. They were taken into custody Tuesday when their two small U.S. navy riverine vessels drifted into Iranian-claimed waters during a training mission.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter issued a statement Wednesday morning after the sailors were released.

“I am pleased that ten U.S. Navy sailors have departed Iran and are now back in U.S. hands. I want to personally thank Secretary of State John Kerry for his diplomatic engagement with Iran to secure our sailors’ swift return. Around the world, the U.S. Navy routinely provides assistance to foreign sailors in distress, and we appreciate the timely way in which this situation was resolved,” Carter said.

RELATED: 2 US Navy boats and 10 sailors held by Iran, Pentagon says

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) said in a statement Wednesday that the sailors had been released back into international waters following a U.S. apology and clarifications that any incursion was “a mistake.”

“The Americans have undertaken not to repeat such mistakes,” added the statement, which was read aloud on state TV. “The captured marines were released in international waters under the supervision of the IRGC Navy.”

The U.S. Navy confirmed that the sailors had been “safely returned” after departing Iran’s Farsi Island at 3:43 a.m. ET aboard the riverine vessels they had been operating when the incident occurred.

They were later transferred ashore by Navy aircraft while other sailors took charge of their boats and continued on for Bahrain, the Navy added in a statement.

“There are no indications that the sailors were harmed during their brief detention,” the statement said, adding that the circumstances of the incident will be investigated.

The sailors’ release caps a quick, overnight flurry of diplomatic activity after Iran said the boats had entered its waters on Tuesday.

U.S. officials had sprung into action, with Secretary of State John Kerry calling his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif in hopes of securing the sailors’ freedom.

Iran’s Navy chief Gen. Ali Fadavi initially accused the U.S. Navy vessels of demonstrating “unprofessional behavior.” However, later Wednesday he said that an investigation showed the American vessels had entered his country’s waters due to a mechanical issue — which jibed with what U.S. officials had initially suggested.

“It was not for espionage or other harmful purposes,” Fadavi said on state-run TV.

Still, he defended the decision to take the sailors into custody as “necessary measures” given the presence of U.S. forces in the region.

American naval ships routinely navigate the waters of the Persian Gulf near Iranian territory, and their presence there frequently has been a source of tensions between the two nations.

Senior U.S. military commanders criticized Iran last month for its “highly provocative” actions when it fired unguided rockets near U.S. ships, including the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier, in the Strait of Hormuz.

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