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REUTERS - A powerful Iranian cleric warned on Friday that detained British embassy staff would face trial for their alleged role in post-election unrest, and EU countries summoned Iranian envoys to protest against the detentions.
In London, Britain's Foreign Office said it was "very concerned" about Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati's statement that the local employees could be tried in connection with demonstrations against last month's disputed presidential vote.
"In these developments their embassy here maintained a presence ... Individuals were arrested and inevitably they will be tried as they have (made) confessions," Jannati told Friday prayer worshippers.
Jannati is a conservative who heads the Guardian Council, a powerful 12-member constitutional watchdog. There was no immediate comment from the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
A European Union official in Brussels said members of the 27-member bloc summoned Iranian ambassadors to protest against the detention of the Iranian staff from Britain's mission.
He said EU states agreed a gradual approach towards Tehran that could in future include visa bans and withdrawal of ambassadors from Iran, depending on how the situation evolved.
"The first immediate action is to convey a strong message of protest against the detention of British embassy local staff and to demand their immediate release," the official said.
Further steps would also be determined by the outcome of the meeting of the Group of Eight major industrialised powers in Italy next week, he said.
Iran said earlier this week that nine Iranian staff at the British embassy were detained for involvement in the mass street protests that erupted after the June 12 election won by hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Most have been released, but British officials say two embassy employees remain in detention. Jannati did not say how many of the staff could face trial.
Britain has denied Iranian accusations that embassy staff were involved in instigating opposition protests after the vote, which defeated presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi says was rigged in the incumbent's favour.
The European Union has pledged a strong, collective response to any Iranian harassment of staff at European embassies.
Britain and Iran have already expelled two of each other's diplomats since the election, which stirred Iran's most striking display of internal dissent since the 1979 Islamic revolution and strained ties with the West.
In London, a Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "We are very concerned by these reports and are investigating."
"Allegations that our staff are involved in fomenting unrest are wholly without foundation. We will be seeking an urgent explanation from the Iranians."
A spokeswoman for Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country holds the EU presidency, said it would not be acceptable for Iran to file charges against those still detained or those who had been freed.
On Wednesday, Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency said that one of those detained "had a remarkable role during the recent unrest in managing it behind the scenes".
Iranian officials deny the election was rigged, saying it was the nation's "healthiest" since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The authorities have portrayed the unrest as the work of local subversives and foreign powers, especially Britain.
Jannati reiterated accusations by other senior Iranian figures that the West had plotted a so-called "velvet" revolution to undermine the Islamic Republic's establishment.
"They (the British) had ahead of time ... announced that in the election that is scheduled to take place in Iran there might be unrest and turmoil," Jannati said.
Jannati, who endorsed Ahmadinejad before the election, also hit out at the president's reformist opponents: "Isn't their approach an attempt to confront the (Islamic) establishment?"