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Iran confirms three Americans are being detained

Iranian officials tell the Kurdish government that two men and a woman crossed into Iranian territory 'without permission.' The group apparently was on a hiking trip.

August 02, 2009|Liz Sly

BAGHDAD — Three Americans who apparently strayed across the Iranian border while on a hiking trip in the northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan are in Iranian custody, that country's state-run television reported Saturday.

The Arabic-language Al Alam station quoted an Interior Ministry official as saying the Americans, two men and a woman, were detained after they ignored warnings from border guards and crossed into Iran in a remote mountainous area about 55 miles northeast of the Kurdish town of Sulaymaniya.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said it was investigating reports that the three were missing and couldn't confirm any details. The State Department said in a statement that it had asked the Swiss government, which looks after U.S. interests in Iran, to confirm the reports with the Iranians and to seek consular access.

The detentions come at a delicate time in relations between the United States and Iran, which is facing a domestic crisis as the opposition continues to protest the results of the June 12 presidential election. President Obama has offered to open a dialogue with Tehran, but relations have been strained by Iranian allegations that the West has been fomenting protests over the official results of the election.

Although most of Iraq is considered too dangerous for tourists, the semiautonomous enclave of Kurdistan is considered safe. Americans can walk freely on the streets and drive unguarded through the countryside.

Kurdistan, long isolated from the outside world by sanctions and Saddam Hussein's regime, has tried in recent years to encourage tourists to visit, promoting itself as an off-the-beaten-track destination to adventurous hikers and mountain climbers who already have conquered the usual tourist hot spots.

The Ahmed Awa area where the three went missing is reputedly one of outstanding natural beauty, noted for its pristine waterfalls and thick forests of pistachio trees. But the border with Iran is not clearly demarcated.

Kurdish officials said they had been informed by Iranian authorities that the three were detained because they crossed the border "without permission." A senior Kurdish intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity said they were being held in the Iranian border town of Marivan.

The hikers left Sulaymaniya by taxi for the border area Thursday. After spending the night there, they set out Friday morning in the direction of the Iranian border, the official said.

"After walking around the area and hiking the mountain, they lost their way due to their lack of familiarity with the location," said a statement from the Kurdistan Regional Government.

About 1 p.m. Friday, the hikers telephoned a friend who had remained behind in Sulaymaniya and told him they were surrounded by armed men. The friend raised the alarm, and the three haven't been heard from since, a Kurdish official said.

American helicopters and Kurdish security forces scoured the area for several hours Friday until it was clear that they were not in Iraq. The American who had remained behind was taken away from the hotel by United States officials, Kurdish officials said.

The owner of the Nirwan Hotel, where the Americans stayed in Sulaymaniya, said the four told him they were journalists. However, Kurdish officials said they believed at least two of them were studying Arabic in Syria, and that they spoke Arabic.

The Kurdistan government, which has good relations with both Iran and the U.S., is doing "its utmost to find a solution," the statement said.

Previous encounters of U.S. citizens with Iranian authorities have not ended without drama. Most recently, journalist Roxana Saberi spent more than three months in custody before her eight-year prison sentence on charges of espionage was reduced and suspended. A private investigator, Robert Levinson, has not been heard from since he disappeared during a brief trip to Iran's Kish Island in 2007.

Also in 2007, 15 British sailors were detained after their boat strayed across the maritime border between Iran and Iraq. They were released after 13 days, but only after some confessed on TV to illegally crossing the border.

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liz.sly@latimes.com

Times staff writers Sebastian Rotella in Washington and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and special correspondent Asso Ahmed in Sulaymaniya contributed to this report.

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