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Iran says it's questioning 3 Americans in border town

A state news agency in the Islamic republic quotes a governor as saying the Americans had not confessed to any crime. They disappeared from an Iraqi border area Friday.

August 05, 2009|Maria L. La Ganga and Liz Sly

SAN FRANCISCO AND BAGHDAD — To some Iranian officials, Shane Bauer is a spy, one of three young Americans who strayed across the border from Iraq's Kurdistan region late last week and is being held for questioning.

To Sandy Close, the 27-year-old is a passionate photojournalist, an intrepid explorer and a careful planner who would never expose himself and his friends to unnecessary danger.

Close is executive editor of New America Media and, nearly a year ago, Bauer began freelancing for her organization, writing more than two dozen stories from Syria.

On July 27, he e-mailed Close to tell her he was "going to Kurdistan to get a feel for the region and to cover the elections, which he saw as the big story in Iraq," she said Tuesday.

"His focus was always on the Arabic Middle East," she said. "The idea that he would have wandered into Iran on a fool's errand was not in his makeup. He told us where he was going. He wouldn't take a girlfriend and another friend off on a misadventure."

Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal, all UC Berkeley graduates, were hiking along the Iran-Iraq border when they apparently strayed into Iranian territory, according to Iranian state media. On Tuesday, an Iranian lawmaker said the three were "definitely" spies.

Mohammed Karim Abedi, a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security Committee, said it would be up to the "relevant authorities" to decide how to handle the case. But his comments suggested that some Iranians would take a hard line on an incident that threatened to complicate the Obama administration's efforts to reach out to Tehran.

"This issue is condemnable, and an apology from the U.S. side will not be acceptable, because the area is a very sensitive one," Abedi told Al Alam, Iran's state-run Arabic language TV channel. "We can definitely say that they have come as spies."

U.S. State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood dismissed the suggestion that the trio were spies and said the U.S. had received no formal confirmation that they were being held in Iran. Because the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, Switzerland has been asked to help locate the Americans.

Close said she wasn't worried when she heard that Bauer, a fluent Arabic speaker, was going to Kurdistan, and she was anticipating his dispatches on the election. On Tuesday, she rued the fact that "more and more people getting into trouble are like Shane, without large news institutions behind them."

Ken Light, director of the Center for Photography at UC Berkeley, agreed. Light taught Bauer, who graduated in 2007, and described him as enthusiastic, committed and intense.

"The whole new way we're looking at journalism, we have become dependent on these young, entrepreneurial journalists," he said. Unattached to big media companies, they are "young enough to travel and passionate enough to tell these stories."

Shourd, 30, who graduated in 2003 with a bachelor's degree in English, has published travel stories online. She is described on bravenewtraveler.com as a "teacher-activist-writer from California" who "loves fresh broccoli, Zapatistas and anyone who can change her mind."

Three years ago, Shourd tutored and mentored children at a program called Classroom Matters in Berkeley. Director Lisa Miller said Shourd was "very passionate and devoted to working with young children."

"She had a sort of desire to go out and see the world," Miller said. "She had a sense of adventure, and she was a very life-loving person who wanted to make the most of her experiences."

Fattal, 27, graduated in 2004 with a bachelor of science degree in environmental economics and policy. According to news reports, he recently worked and lived at a sustainable-living research center in Oregon.

The Fattal family lives in Pennsylvania and has been counseled by the State Department not to comment, said Don Craig, who works with Fattal's father.

The family is praying for their son's return, Craig said Tuesday. "He's a good kid."

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maria.laganga@latimes.com

liz.sly@latimes.com

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