Thatcher in secret plea to free US hostages in Tehran: files

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British prime minister Margaret Thatcher made a secret plea to Iran's leader to free US hostages in Tehran after the rescue of Iranians from a London embassy siege, newly released files showed Thursday.

British official records show how Thatcher used the successful storming of the Iranian embassy in London in 1980 by British elite forces to seek the release of Americans who were taken hostage inside the US embassy in Tehran.

In a secret message, Thatcher urged supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to release the 52 Americans as a "gesture of goodwill" to the men from elite force the SAS who had freed the Iranians.

The Americans were taken hostage in November 1979, captured when supporters of Khomeini's Islamic republic overran the American embassy in Tehran after the US agreed to admit the deposed Shah of Iran.

They had already been held hostage for five months by the time six gunmen burst into the Iranian embassy in London in April, 1980, and took 26 hostages.

American efforts to free their nationals had suffered a setback when a rescue attempt ended in failure with the crashing of a US helicopter and the death of eight US servicemen.

In the successful storming of the Iranian embassy in London on May 5, which saw five of the terrorists killed for the loss of only two Iranian hostages, British diplomats saw a chance to help their friends in Washington.

In a carefully crafted message, Thatcher -- prime minister of Britain at the head of a Conservative government from 1979 to 1990 -- stressed she was not trying to draw a parallel between the situation in Tehran and London.

"I do however ask that the Imam (Khomeini)... should order the release of the American hostages as a gesture of goodwill to the brave men who risked their lives to free the Iranian hostages and give thanks to God for their safety," she said.

Britain's ambassador John Green, who had been withdrawn from Tehran, flew back to the Iranian capital to deliver the message in person to the Iranian president, Abolhassan Bani Sadr.

Green told the president it was intended to be "entirely private" and London had not discussed the approach with the Americans. Bani Sadr was said to have read the letter carefully and then put it aside.

The approach did not have the desired effect, however. It was not until January, 1981, after 444 days in captivity, that the Americans were released.

The British files were released by country's national archives under a rule that requires most government records to be be made public after 30 years.

© 2010 AFP

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