In rare appearance, Assad ventures to town captured by Hezbollah

Syria’s President Bashar Assad made a rare public appearance outside Damascus Friday for morning prayers marking the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha, state media reported.

Since the start of Syria’s devastating conflict in 2011, Assad has only left the capital on a few occasions.

This year, however, he has been able to venture further afield more frequently, including to the central province of Hama and to western Syria, as his forces and their allies have scored victories on the battlefield.

“President Assad prayed on Eid al-Adha… in the town of Qara” in western Qalamoun, near Lebanon, the presidency tweeted, along with a picture of him kneeling in a mosque flanked by other officials.

State television showed footage of the Syrian leader smiling in the presence of his supporters inside the mosque in Qara.

Last week forces loyal to Assad, including fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, drove Islamic State group jihadists out of western Qalamoun.

Eid al-Adha is one of the holiest feast days in the Islamic calendar.

More than 330,000 people have died since Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011 with anti-government protests.


Saudi Arabia says it captured 3 Iranians attempting attack

Saudi Arabia said on Monday that it captured three Iranian Revolutionary Guards aboard an explosive-laden boat heading to an oil platform in the Gulf, further ratcheting up tensions in the region.

Iran said the three people detained were fishermen.

The Saudi statement came three days after it said the incident occurred in the Marjan oil field, and two days after Iran accused the Saudis of shooting one of its fishermen in the Gulf waters which divide their two countries.

Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were already strained but escalated after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other allies cut ties with Qatar two weeks ago.

They accuse Doha of supporting extremist groups, including some backed by Iran, “that aim to destabilize the region.”

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called for a permanent mechanism in the Gulf to resolve crises like the diplomatic and economic isolation of Qatar.

The three guards “are now being questioned by Saudi authorities,” the information and culture ministry said in its statement.

“It is clear this was intended to be a terrorist act in Saudi territorial waters, designed to cause severe damage to people and property,” the ministry said.

In Iran, Majid Aghababaie, head of border affairs at the Interior Ministry, said the three detained were fishermen from the southern Iranian port of Bushehr.

“There is no proof that they are military personnel,” he said, in remarks carried by the ILNA news agency.

Saudi Arabia has said it seized weapons from a boat captured in the Marjan field at about 8:30 p.m. on Friday.

It said the navy fired warning shots when three small boats entered Saudi territorial waters and headed at high speed towards the platforms.

That statement made no mention of explosives and did not detail what type of weapons were found, though it said they were for “subversive purposes.”

That statement also made no mention of arrests, but said the boats bore “red and white flags.” Two of the boats got away, it said.

On Saturday, Iran accused the Saudi coastguard of killing one of its fishermen after two fishing boats may have strayed into Saudi waters.

Saudi Arabia regularly accuses Shiite-dominated Iran of interfering in Arab countries, and has suggested it is linked to instability in the kingdom’s east, where minority Shiites live.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps in turn has accused Saudi Arabia of involvement in June 7 attacks in Tehran, when gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the parliament complex and the shrine of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Seventeen people were killed in the attack claimed by the Islamic State group.

Saudi Arabia’s announcement of the Guards’ capture coincided with visits to the kingdom by Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir.

Saudi Arabia has been trying to cement its ties throughout the Muslim world against the backdrop of higher tensions with its Iranian rival.

Former teacher accused of kidnapping ‘troubled’ teenager captured at a remote California cabin


During the nearly six weeks that Tad Cummins and 15-year-old Elizabeth Thomas were missing, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation received more than 1,500 tips.

Late Wednesday night, the tip they were desperately hoping for finally arrived.

It came from a caller who told investigators that the 50-year-old Cummins and the teenager he is accused of abducting might be living in a remote cabin near Cecilville, Calif., a onetime mining town about 100 miles from the Oregon border.

Speaking to reporters at a news conference Thursday afternoon, TBI spokesman Josh DeVine said investigators quickly coordinated with the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office, which was able to locate a silver Nissan Rogue belonging to Cummins and keep the vehicle under surveillance for several hours.

“The area where the pair was reported to be is a very remote, isolated area with no or limited cellphone services,” DeVine said. “As daylight broke this morning, they were able to take Tad Cummins into custody and safely recover Elizabeth without incident.”

Authorities said Elizabeth was physically unharmed, but they declined to comment on her emotional well-being or where the pair has been since they vanished last month.

TBI Director Mark Gwyn said Elizabeth will be flown back to Tennessee in a TBI aircraft to be reunited with her family. At the same time, he noted, investigators from TBI, the FBI and the Maury County Sheriff’s Office are on their way to Northern California to continue their investigation.

NEW: Here’s the mug shot of Tad Cummins from California. He’s now facing state and federal charges.

Gwyn said Cummins — who is being held by the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Department without bond — faces charges that “could keep him behind bars for many years.”

“What happened in California this morning, however, proves it only takes one person to lead to a successful end,” he added. “We are extremely thankful the hard work of all partners in this search has paid off. We’re also grateful for the public’s support and vigilance throughout this search effort.”

Once Cummins is extradited to Tennessee, he will be charged with sexual contact with a minor and aggravated kidnapping, authorities said.

Acting U.S. attorney Jack Smith said his office had also filed a federal charge of transportation of a minor across state lines for criminal sexual intercourse — a charge that carries a minimum 10 year sentence.

Anthony Thomas, Elizabeth’s father, told NBC affiliate WSMV-TV that he wasn’t surprised that they were in the northwest and said he’d heard the pair were in a commune.

“I’m very happy,” he said. “She’s probably going to be hungry.”

“We’re going to have to figure out what kind of state of mind she’s in, of course, and probably get her some help,” he said. “Maybe a long road, but at least we’ve got her back.”

Maury County Public Schools also issued statement Thursday, calling Elizabeth’s return “wonderful news for our community.”

“Thanks go to all who have kept the message of finding Elizabeth Thomas and working on her safe return as top-of-mind throughout the nation,” it said.

The teen and Cummins — a 50-year-old from Middle Tennessee — had been missing since March 13, when an Amber Alert was issued. Cummins was Elizabeth’s high school teacher at Culleoka Unit School.

“Investigative efforts have revealed a troubling pattern of behavior by Tad Cummins, suggesting the 50-year-old may have been abusing his role as a teacher to groom this vulnerable young girl for some time in an effort to lure and potentially sexually exploit her,” the agency said in a statewide Amber Alert.

“Having now been on the run for more than five days, Cummins may have taken her, frankly, anywhere,” the agency said last month.

On March 13, video surveillance at a Columbia gas station showed Cummins filling up his silver Nissan Rogue. A short time later, investigators say, he drove to a Shoney’s restaurant, where Elizabeth had been dropped off by a friend and was waiting. Investigators said they think he manipulated her into leaving with him, but he wasn’t authorized to take a minor, and she wasn’t old enough to consent. That afternoon, investigators say, they determined Elizabeth was 80 miles away in Decatur, Ala.


Then, nothing. After their disappearance, investigators said they had received hundreds of tips from 24 states, but not enough information to tighten the dragnet despite a multi-state manhunt and Cummins’s addition to Tennessee’s most-wanted list.

In a news release, the TBI said Cummins might be keeping Elizabeth out of sight of authorities, possibly sleeping in his car or in a rural community.

Last month, the agency released new images of Cummins in an effort to keep the case in the spotlight. The pictures were from a week before Cummins and Elizabeth disappeared, and they showed him wearing a camouflage cap and pushing a shopping cart at a store.

El Chapo, Mexican Drug Kingpin, Is Extradited to U.S.

MEXICO CITY — Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the notorious drug lord known as El Chapo who twice slipped out of high-security Mexican prisons and into criminal legend, was extradited to the United States on Thursday night, officials said, drawing to a close a decades-long quest to prosecute the head of one of the world’s largest narcotics organizations.

A federal court in Mexico denied an appeal by Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers to block the extradition, clearing the way for his transfer to the American authorities in New York, where he faces numerous charges for his role as the chieftain of the Sinaloa cartel. Mr. Guzmán was put on a plane on Thursday in Ciudad Juárez, near the border with Texas, and was set to arrive in the United States as President Obama leaves office.

The decision to extradite Mr. Guzmán was an about-face for the Mexican government, which once claimed that he would serve his long sentence in Mexico first. However, after his Houdini-like escape in 2015, when his associates tunneled him out of Mexico’s most secure prison, officials began to reconsider.

When he was recaptured early last year, after one of Mexico’s most exhaustive manhunts, the government publicly said it would allow the extradition of Mr. Guzmán, thus relieving itself of the potential embarrassment of another escape and preventing further souring of its relationship with the United States.

Mr. Guzmán’s extradition came suddenly, after nearly a year of appeals and legal procedures. Even his own lawyer was surprised. In an interview after the announcement by the Mexican government, the lawyer, José Refugio Rodríguez, said he had only just learned about the extradition. Indeed, he was at the prison where Mr. Guzmán was being held, planning to see his client, when it was locked down for two hours.

“I was supposed to visit him today,” he said. “I know nothing of this.”

Mr. Guzmán — whose nickname, El Chapo, means “Shorty” — was a major trophy for law enforcement officials in both countries. Over the years, as the drug trade blossomed into a multibillion-dollar industry, he became much more than a mere trafficker. As a farm-boy-turned-billionaire with a flair for the dramatic, he became a symbol of Mexico’s broken rule of law, America’s narcotics obsession and the failure of both nations’ drug wars.

And yet, amid the anguish caused by Mr. Guzmán — the trail of blood left by his henchmen across swaths of Mexico; the addiction crisis fueled by his networks in America — his legend only seemed to grow. In Mexico, he became a folk hero to the masses. In Sinaloa, tales of Mr. Guzmán’s handing out freebies to the poor and covering checks for diners in the restaurants he frequented are commonplace.

But his daring escapes cemented his reputation as an outlaw.

Mr. Guzmán first managed to break out of a prison in 2001 — according to some accounts, by hiding in a laundry cart. In the ensuing years, while on the run, he seemed always just out of the grasp of the authorities, slipping into secret passages beneath bathtubs or absconding seconds before federal raids.

The fascination with Mr. Guzmán stemmed from the fact that one could never really count him out. He perfected the escape hatch, the underground tunnel and the trap door — all tools he used to evade law enforcement during his years on the run, which ended with an arrest in 2014. He sent his engineers to Germany for training, then dispatched them to his homes, where they would outfit closets, bathrooms and refrigerators with secret exits.

A pioneer of the cross-border tunnel, used to shuttle tens of thousands of tons of drugs into America, he ultimately adapted those feats of secret underground engineering for his escape from the Altiplano prison: a maximum-security facility in the State of Mexico where he lived in isolation, under 24-hour surveillance by a camera in his cell.

On the night of July 11, 2015, shortly before 9 p.m., Mr. Guzmán stepped into his shower and passed through a small hole in its floor, positioned in the camera’s one blind spot. From there, he descended into a mile-long tunnel, equipped with a motorcycle on rails, and raced to freedom.

His escape was a stinging embarrassment for the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which had trumpeted his capture as a crucial victory in its bloody campaign against the narcotics trade.

Again a fugitive, Mr. Guzmán found the time to rendezvous with film stars, including Sean Penn, to discuss a biopic about his life. But his freedom was short-lived. After a manhunt that involved more than 2,500 people, he was seized in the town of Los Mochis in early 2016 after crawling out of a sewer.

Once he was back in prison, many worried that he would escape once more, prompting the authorities to rotate him from cell to cell with regularity and, eventually, to send him up north, to the border with Texas.

The general belief is that, in the United States, El Chapo’s antics will be much harder to pull off. Though his reputation may not diminish, his chances of escape, or acquittal, are drastically lower there, experts say.

Mr. Guzmán faces charges stemming from six separate indictments in the United States. In the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, where he is expected to face prosecution, he is charged with the manufacture and distribution of a range of drugs, the use of firearms, money laundering and running an ongoing criminal enterprise. The indictment, first filed in 2009, has been updated three times since then.

In a statement on Thursday night, the United States Justice Department said it extended “its gratitude to the government of Mexico for their extensive cooperation and assistance in securing the extradition of Guzmán Loera to the United States.”

In ridding itself of Mr. Guzmán, the Mexican government has lifted at least one giant weight from its shoulders: that of keeping and successfully prosecuting the notorious escape artist. He is departing, however, at a time of deep political unrest in the country, as protests over an increase in gasoline prices continue and corruption scandals, as well as rising crime, nag at the nation’s image.

The American president-elect, Donald J. Trump, has made threatening Mexico over trade and immigration a center of his platform. It is unclear whether the decision to extradite Mr. Guzmán the day before Mr. Trump’s inauguration was connected in any way with the hostile tone the president-elect has adopted toward Mexico.

“The fact that we delivered him to Obama is a clear political message that says this is a government we have long collaborated and worked closely with,” said Jorge Chabat, an expert on security at CIDE, a Mexico City research institution. “By not waiting to send him to Trump after his inauguration, it is a subtle statement saying, ‘We could do this for you, too, in the future, if we have a good relationship.’”

“If not, there won’t be any other powerful narco traffickers extradited,” he said.

Putin agrees to return Israeli tank captured in Lebanon War

Russia President Vladimir Putin has approved an Israeli request to return a tank captured by Syria during the Battle of Sultan Yacoub, during the 1982 First Lebanon War.

from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the issue during meeting with Putin in the Kremlin last month, following a request by Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement Sunday.

Considered one of Israel’s worst failures in the First Lebanon War, 30 Israeli soldiers were killed and another three went missing in the two-day battle against Syrian forces in the Bekaa Valley.

The Magach-3 tank, along with Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and Zachary Baumel — all listed as missing in action — were captured by Syrian forces during the June 11 battle.

Several eyewitnesses at the time testified to seeing the three Israeli soldiers paraded alive through the streets of Damascus on top of the tank.

Missing in Action Israel Defense Forces soldiers Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz. (The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers)

Though there were indications in 1993, 2000, and possibly 2005 that at least one of the three soldiers was still alive, the reported sightings were never confirmed.

The Syrians delivered the tank to the Russian army, which currently has it on display at the Moscow Military Museum.

In a recorded video message on Sunday, Netanyahu thanked Putin for the “humanitarian gesture,” saying that in lieu of a grave, the tank served as an important symbol for the families of the MIA soldiers.

“I want to thank Russian President Vladimir Putin for responding to my request and the chief of staff’s request to return to Israel the tank from Sultan Yacoub,” the prime minister said.

“We are continuing to work in a number of ways to determine the fate of Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and Zachary Baumel. We will not rest until we know what happened to them,” Netanyahu said.

Photograph purportedly showing three IDF soldiers on a captured Israeli tank paraded through the streets of Damascus, Syria n the days following the June 11, 1982 battle of Sultan Yacoub in the First Lebanon War. (The International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers)

Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben Dahan, himself a veteran of the 1982 war, also praised Putin’s gesture.

“I was deeply moved to hear the tank would be returned,” he said. “This takes me back 34 years. I just hope that with the tank’s return, we can also find out more information on the missing soldiers.”

The statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the families of the MIA soldiers had been notified of the tank’s return.

Iran said planning statue of captured American sailors

Iran is reportedly planning to build a statue of 10 US sailors it briefly detained in its territorial waters in January.

The head of naval forces in the country’s Revolutionary Guards said the monument would be a “tourist attraction,” Britain’s Daily Telegraph reported Friday.

According to the report, the statue will be erected on Kharg, a small Iranian island in the Persian Gulf close to the site of the arrests.

The sailors, nine men and one woman, were detained in January after they drifted into Iranian waters off Farsi Island, an outpost in the middle of the Persian Gulf that has been used as a base for Revolutionary Guards speedboats since the 1980s.

“There are very many photographs of the major incident of arresting US Marines in the Persian Gulf in the media and we intend to build a symbol out of them inside one of our naval monuments,” Commander Ali Fadavi told the Iranian Defense Press news agency, the Telegraph said.

File: US sailors released by Iran on January 13, 2016, after their boats entered Iranian territorial waters the day before. (screen capture/Twitter)

Tehran released the 10 sailors less than a day after it seized their two small ships. The incident set off a flurry of phone calls between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to secure the servicemen’s release.

Iran’s state television said Tuesday that the Islamic republic retrieved thousands of pages of information from devices used by the US sailors.

The report quotes Gen. Ali Razmjou, a naval commander in the Revolutionary Guards, as saying that information filling about 13,000 pages was retrieved from laptops, GPS devices and maps.

He said the move falls within Iran’s rights under international regulations, and that the information recovered could be used in “various fields.” Iranian authorities returned all the devices taken from the Americans even though it had the right to confiscate them, he said.

The Guard plans to publish a book on the incident based on international reactions and coverage of the event, Razmjou added.

The US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, which is responsible for American naval forces in the Gulf, said it was aware of the report but had no immediate comment.

‘We got him’ – Top terrorist linked to Paris attacks caught in Belgium

The number one fugitive from the Paris attacks was caught in a Brussels raid on Friday, a Belgian minister said on Twitter.

“We got him” said Theo Francken, Secretary of State for Asylum and Migration, on Twitter.

The Federal Prosecutor’s office has also confirmed his arrest, public broadcaster RTBF said.

Other media reported two people had been arrested, though France’s President Francois Hollande said there was no confirmation of the detention of Salah Abdeslam, the 26-year-old French suspect from Brussels.

Television footage showed masked, black-clad security forces guarding a street in the capital and reporters at the scene described white smoke rising from a rooftop.

A police spokeswoman said an operation was ongoing and could not give further details.

Belgian police had found finger prints belonging to Abdeslam at the scene of an earlier shootout, prosecutors said.

The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office also said an Algerian killed during that earlier operation at an apartment in Brussels on Tuesday was probably one of the people French and Belgian investigators were seeking in relation to the Islamic State attacks in Paris on Nov. 13.

It later said in a separate statement that Mohamed Belkaid was probably the man who went under the name of Samir Bouzid and was killed on Tuesday.

Public broadcaster RTBF said it had information that Abdeslam, whose elder brother blew himself up in Paris, was “more than likely” one of two men who police have said evaded capture at the scene before a sniper shot dead 35-year-old Belkaid as he aimed a Kalashnikov.

Other Belgian media were more cautious, however, saying only there was evidence Abdeslam had been there.

A man named Samir Bouzid has been sought since December when police issued CCTV pictures of him wiring cash from Brussels two days after the Paris attacks to a woman who was then killed in a shootout with police in the Paris suburb of St. Denis.

She was a cousin of Abdelhamid Abbaoud, a Belgian who had fought in Syria and is suspected of being a prime organizer of the attacks in which 130 people were killed. Both died in the apartment in St. Denis on Nov. 18.

France’s BFM television said the fingerprints were found on a glass in the apartment, where four police officers, including a Frenchwoman, were wounded when a hail of automatic gunfire hit them through the front door as they arrived for what officials said they had expected to be a relatively routine search.

Belgian officials said earlier in the week that police had not expected to find armed suspects at the apartment and that the presence of French officers was not an indication the raid was of special importance to the investigation.

Abdeslam’s elder brother was among the suicide bombers who killed themselves in Paris during a shooting rampage in which 130 people died. The younger Abdeslam was driven back to Brussels from Paris hours later.

Belgian authorities are holding 10 people suspected of involvement with him, but there has been no report of the fugitive himself being sighted. There has long been speculation in Belgium that he could have fled to Syria.

Investigators believe much of the planning and preparation for the November bombing and shooting rampage in Paris was conducted in Brussels by young French and Belgian nationals, some of whom fought in Syria for Islamic State.

The attack strained relations between Brussels and Paris, with French officials suggesting Belgium was lax in monitoring the activities of hundreds of militants returned from Syria.

Brussels, headquarters of the European Union as well as Western military alliance NATO, was entirely locked down for days shortly after the Paris attacks for fear of a major incident there. Brussels has maintained a high state of security alert since then, with military patrols a regular sight.

Israeli ‘spy vulture’ captured in Lebanon

(JTA) — Lebanese citizens captured a vulture they said was carrying Israeli spy equipment.

The residents of the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbail caught the bird on Tuesday. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority said the griffon vulture was wearing a tracking device, the Jerusalem Post reported.

Lebanese media reported the vulture was released after it was determined that it was not a threat. Israel’s parks authority could not confirm the reports.

“We hope that the Lebanese will take care of him and release him,” avian ecologist Ohad Hatzofe told the Jerusalem Post.

The vulture was brought to Israel from the Catalonia region of Spain in July of last year in an attempt to bolster the population of the endangered species in the Middle East.

This is not the first animal reported by Israel’s neighbors to be spying for the state. Last summer, Palestinian media reported that Hamas had captured a dolphin off the Gaza coast that they said was outfitted with Israeli spy equipment.

In 2010, an Egyptian official claimed that sharks in the Red Sea wearing Israeli spy gear attacked tourists.

Iran general scoffs: US sailors cried when we captured them

top Iranian general boasted Saturday that US sailors briefly held by the Islamic republic earlier this week were “crying” as they were taken in by his nation’s naval forces.

Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), made the gloating remarks on the day that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif was meeting his US counterpart John Kerry to finalize the lifting of nuclear sanctions on Iran.

Salami said “the marines were crying when they were being captured, but they later felt better after the IRGC forces treated them with kindness.”

The comments were reported by Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency.

Tehran released the 10 sailors on Wednesday, a day after it seized their two small ships when they drifted into Iranian-controlled waters. The incident set off a flurry of phone calls between Kerry and Zarif to secure the servicemen’s release.

“The Americans humbly admitted our might and power, and we freed the marines after being assured that they had entered the Iranian waters unintentionally and we even returned their weapons,” Salami also said.

IRGC Deputy Commander Hossein Salami (YouTube screen capture)

Iran has repeatedly claimed the US apologized for the incident, though Washington has denied such claims.

On Wednesday the IRGC’s naval commander said his forces had their missiles locked on a US aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf as the incident unfolded, and were awaiting orders to fire.

General Ali Fadavi scoffed at the “unprofessional behavior” of the US fleet during the crisis, warned that Iran could have inflicted an unprecedented “catastrophe” upon the US forces, and bragged that the US would never prevail in a confrontation with Iran in the Gulf.

Ali Fadavi, IRGC Navy commander. (YouTube screenshot)

“The USS Truman Aircraft carrier showed unprofessional moves for 40 minutes after the detention of the trespassers,” and Iran was ready to strike at it, Fadavi said,according to Fars news.

“We were highly prepared with our coast-to-sea missiles, missile-launching speedboats and our numerous capabilities,” Fadavi said, according to Fars.

“The US and France’s aircraft carriers were within our range and if they had continued their unprofessional moves, they would have been afflicted with such a catastrophe that they had never experienced all throughout the history,” the IRGC commander warned, according to Fars. “They could have been shot, and if they were, they would have been destroyed.”

Fadavi warned, according to Fars, that the US and its navy “won’t be the winner of any battle with Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, as destruction and sinking of their warships will be the end result of any such war.”

Kerry thanked Iran Wednesday for resolving the dispute “peacefully and efficiently.”

“I want to express my gratitude to the Iranian authorities for their cooperation ‎in swiftly resolving this matter,” Kerry said in a statement.

“That this issue was resolved peacefully and efficiently is a testament to the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong,” Kerry added.

Iran has since released photos and video of the American’s apparently surrendering on their knees, as well as in custody in an Iranian base.

Kerry and Zarif were in Vienna Saturday along with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, where nuclear sanctions on Tehran were expected to be lifted when the International Atomic Energy Agency announces that Iran has met its obligations under last July’s landmark agreement with world powers.

Iran Says It Has Released U.S. Sailors Accused of ‘Trespassing’

TEHRAN — Iran has released two United States Navy patrol boats and 10 crew members who were described as “trespassing” in Iranian waters near a major naval base, state news media reported on Wednesday.

The Pentagon and the State Department said that one of the boats had experienced mechanical problems en route to Bahrain from Kuwait on a routine mission on Tuesday, and the Iranians appeared to have accepted that explanation.

The release was announced shortly before 10 a.m. on an Iranian state-run news channel, IRINN. “The detained U.S. Marines, after it was realized that their entry into Iran’s territorial waters was unintentional, and after the Marines apologized, were released into international waters in the Persian Gulf,” the channel reported, attributing the statement to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Administration officials said that the military had lost contact with the vessels before they strayed into Iranian waters.

A boat of the type seized by Iran in the Persian Gulf on Tuesday. The sailors aboard are expected to be returned soon.Iran Seizes U.S. Sailors Amid Claims of SpyingJAN. 12, 2016
On the flight deck of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt after a mission. “When they launch, we launch,” an American officer said.Off the Coast of Iran, a High-Stakes Version of Spy Versus SpyAUG. 17, 2015
Brig. Gen. Ramezan Sharif, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards, had said the sailors were held under good conditions and treated with “Islamic compassion.”
The semiofficial Fars news agency in Iran said that the boats had illegally traveled more than a mile into Iranian waters near Farsi Island, the site of a major Iranian naval base. It said that members of the Revolutionary Guards Navy had confiscated GPS equipment, which would “prove that the American ships were ‘trespassing’ around in Iranian waters.”

The waters in question are a frequent site of intelligence collection by the United States, Iran and many gulf countries. The American and Iranian Navies frequently encounter each other there.

The detention and release of the sailors comes at a particularly delicate moment in the tense American-Iranian relationship, just days before a nuclear deal is to be formally put in place, and under which the United States is to unfreeze about $100 billion in Iranian assets.

That step is to be made after international nuclear inspectors verify that Iran has shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country, has disabled and removed centrifuges, and has taken a large plutonium reactor permanently offline.

The American sailors were aboard two riverine patrol boats — 38-foot, high-speed boats that are used to patrol rivers and littoral waters. One official said the two vessels, which often patrol shallow waters near Bahrain, had failed to make a scheduled meeting with a larger ship to refuel.

Secretary of State John Kerry was notified of the seizing of the sailors while meeting with top Philippine officials and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, an official said. Mr. Kerry broke off the meeting and called his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, with whom he had spent months negotiating the nuclear accord. As he walked into the House chamber Tuesday night for President Obama’s State of the Union address, Mr. Kerry said the sailors were “going to get out.”

Mr. Zarif’s ability to intervene in the matter was unclear. Many American and Middle Eastern officials say they believe that recent actions by the Iranian Navy against American forces in the gulf may be intended to embarrass Mr. Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani. The Revolutionary Guards was responsible for the military side of the nuclear program, and many of its senior officers have objected to the nuclear agreement.

American and European officials say that the nuclear accord should go into effect sometime next week. That is called “implementation day,” and it is crucial to Mr. Rouhani, who wants to demonstrate before parliamentary elections that he has succeeded in getting oil and financial sanctions lifted, and Iranian funds unfrozen.

Many Republicans in Congress have vowed to prevent that day from coming. Mr. Obama issued a veto threat on Monday against a House bill that would delay implementation day until the president can certify that Iran has reported all of its past work toward designing a nuclear weapon. International inspectors recently declared that Iran had a program “consistent” with weapons work through 2009, but that it had then ceased. Iran has always denied it ever sought a weapon.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani share the same problem: Their political opponents want to kill the nuclear deal. Both men are determined to see it through. The United States Treasury Department is expected to place some new sanctions on Iran for recent missile tests — which are not covered by the nuclear pact — but that effort has been delayed for reasons American officials will not discuss. A draft of the sanctions declaration was circulated on Capitol Hill just before the new year and quickly leaked.

In the skies and waters of the Persian Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Iran and the United States constantly watch each other. American naval ships roam the waters along Iran’s 1,100-mile southern coastline, their radar trained on the shore and on Iranian ships leaving their harbors. Iranian fighter jets patrol the skies, keeping an eye on American combat planes that take off from an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf every time an Iranian jet comes close to their ship.

The Navy’s Fifth Fleet maintains a presence in the Persian Gulf, including the aircraft carrier, and it has had several episodes with Iran recently.

Two weeks ago, the Iranian Navy harassed an American carrier and a French frigate in the Strait of Hormuz, launching rockets that passed within 1,500 yards of the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman.

Last year, an Iranian Navy frigate approached a ship in the Gulf of Aden where an American military helicopter had just landed and pointed a heavy machine gun at it for several minutes before turning around, all while an Iranian crew filmed the encounter. The Fifth Fleet, for its part, has its own videotape of the episode.

In 2007, the Revolutionary Guards Navy captured 15 British military service members and held them for 13 days, making a point of protecting its sea borders. A year later, the British Navy released a report saying that its vessels had been in an area with disputed borders between Iran and Iraq.