Reporting from Tehran and Beirut — An American woman, one of three U.S. hikers jailed in Iran last year after possibly straying into Iranian territory, will be released Saturday, an Iranian official said Thursday.
Friends and relatives say Joshua Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd were on a hiking trip in the scenic mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iranian border July 31, 2009, when they may have strayed inadvertently into Iranian territory. They were detained by Iranian forces and have been locked up in Tehran's infamous Evin Prison.
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance said in a text message Thursday that one of the three would be released, but did not specify which one. But an official with the Iranian mission to the United Nations said in a subsequent e-mail that it would be Shourd.
"I would like to confirm that Iran will be releasing Sarah Shourd (an American hiker) very soon," the diplomat, Mohammad Reza Bak Sahraei, said. Observers in Tehran had speculated that Shourd, who is in her 30s and has medical problems, may be allowed to go home.
A statement Thursday from the hikers' mothers, who pleaded for their release during a trip to Tehran in May, said: "We have seen the news reports and are urgently seeking further information. We hope and pray that the reports are true and that this signals the end of all three of our children's long and difficult detention.
"Shane, Sarah and Josh are all innocent, and we continue to call for their immediate release, so that they can return home together and be reunited with our families," said the statement from Cindy Hickey, Nora Shourd and Laura Fattal."
Liam O'Donoghue, a friend of Bauer and Shourd, said the families had been assuming that of the three, Shourd was most likely to be freed.
"There's a precedent of earlier hostage releases in Iran of releasing the women first. And she found a lump in her breast. The need is that she get healthcare immediately," he said. "We're all really frightened and hoping that she gets to see a doctor soon. Even Shane and Josh's families have said that it's important for Sarah to get healthcare."
In public statements, Iranian officials have leveled vague charges at the three, including trespassing and espionage.
American officials called for the hikers' freedom after the U.S. allowed alleged Iranian defector Shahram Amiri, a nuclear scientist, to return home in July. The release may be in response to Amiri's return.
But rulers of Muslim countries often grant amnesty to prisoners as a gesture of charity and mercy during Eid el-Fitr holidays, which mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The news of the release also comes as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to depart for his annual trip to New York for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.
"If this turns out to be true, it's terrific news," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "I would just stress that we hope it's all three hikers."
State Department officials said it was unclear whether the release had any broader significance for U.S.-Iranian relations. Trying to determine Iranian intentions, one official said, "is like reading tea leaves."
The official said the Swiss, who act as diplomatic intermediaries for the United States with Iran, have regularly urged Tehran to release the three hikers. He said there had been rumors in recent months that there might be a release during Eid, but there had been no negotiations.
Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Daragahi from Beirut. Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Maria L. LaGanga in Berkeley contributed to this report.