TEHRAN, Iran - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would free the 15 detained British sailors and marines Wednesday as a "gift" to the British people.
He said the captives, who were seized while on patrol in the northern Persian Gulf on March 23, would be taken to Tehran airport at the end of the news conference that he was addressing.
However, an Iranian official said the captive British sailors and marines will be handed over to the British Embassy in Tehran.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's office says it welcomes the news.
"On the occasion of the birthday of the great prophet (Muhammad) ... and for the occasion of the passing of Christ, I say the Islamic Republic government and the Iranian people - with all powers and legal right to put the soldiers on trial - forgave those 15," Ahmadinejad said, referring to the Muslim prophet's birthday on March 30 and the Easter season.
"This pardon is a gift to the British people," he said.
His announcement came shortly after he pinned a medal on the chest of the Iranian coast guard commander who intercepted the sailors and marines.
Ahmadinejad said Iran will never accept trespassing in its territorial waters.
"On behalf of the great Iranian people, I want to thank the Iranian coast guard who courageously defended and captured those who violated their territorial waters," he said.
"We are sorry that British troops remain in Iraq and their sailors are being arrested in Iran," Ahmadinejad said.
He criticized Britain for deploying Leading Seaman Faye Turney, one of the 15 detainees, in the Gulf, pointing out that she is a woman with a child.
"How can you justify seeing a mother away from her home, her children? Why don't they respect family values in the West?" he asked of the British government.