Iraq Presses Iran To Release 3 Americans

August 10, 2009|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,Tribune Newspapers

BAGHDAD - -Iraq has appealed to Iran to free three American hikers after concluding that the trio who apparently strayed across the Iranian border were just lost tourists, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Sunday.

Zebari said he had no reason to believe the three would soon be freed and had heard no word from the Iranians since making the request last week during a meeting with Iran's ambassador to Iraq But he hoped for an answer in the coming days, the foreign minister said.

Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 30, and Josh Fattal, 27, have been in Iranian custody since they crossed into Iran on July 31 while hiking through a scenic mountainous area of Iraq's northern Kurdistan region. All three are University of California-Berkeley graduates who were on an extended trip in the Middle East.

On Sunday the White House said it had received the first official confirmation from Tehran that they are being held.

The administration has "sent strong messages that we'd like these three young people released as soon as possible," National Security Adviser James L. Jones told NBC's "Meet the Press."

Though Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman had previously confirmed the arrests, Washington does not have diplomatic ties with Iran and had been seeking formal confirmation.

At Wednesday's meeting, Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi confirmed to Zebari that the three had been arrested for entering Iran without visas and were being interviewed to ascertain "what their mission really was," according to Zebari.

Zebari told him that Iraq has made its own inquiries and concluded that the Americans were on a vacation and had blundered across the border because they weren't familiar with the area.

"They entered the country without knowledge of the terrain," he said. "From the way we studied the case, and the way they were wandering round without maps, we think this was not something serious.

"They were here in our country and this is why on a humanitarian basis we asked for their release," he added.

Should Iran decide to accuse the Americans of spying, as North Korea did when journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling crossed into its territory, the incident would have the potential to further raise tensions between Tehran and Washington and thwart the Obama administration's efforts to reach out to Iran.

The timing of the incident is highly sensitive, with Iran recently accusing the West of seeking to foment political unrest following a disputed presidential election in June.

Some Iranians have already voiced suspicions about what Americans were doing wandering into Iran at such a time, and one Iranian lawmaker has said they were "definitely spies."

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