- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran said Tuesday the three Americans who strayed across the border from Iraq are under arrest for illegal entry and claimed their case is being used by the West for propaganda. State media cast doubt on whether they were really hikers who lost their way, saying Western reports identified some as journalists.

Shane Bauer, a freelance journalist and photographer, Joshua Fattal and a woman media reports have identified as Sarah Shourd were hiking July 31 along the mountainous border area between Iraq’s northern Kurdish region and Iran. They wandered across the frontier, which is not clearly marked in that area, and were detained.

“While BBC said they were mountain hikers, some Web sites say they were journalists,” said the newscaster on Khabar TV, Iran’s main state news channel. “Since occupation of Iraq by the U.S.-led forces, American journalists in Iraq have traveled to neighboring countries illegally.”

The hard-line Fars news agency, considered close to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard,” quoted the deputy governor of Iranian Kurdistan province near the Iraqi border as saying the three illegally entered Iran and were arrested.

“The three, who are not identified yet, were detained at the Malakh-Khor border point near the town of Marivan,” about 370 miles (630 kilometers) west of the capital Tehran, Fars quoted Iraj Hassanzadeh as saying. “Two of the three are men. They were not interrogated,” he said, adding that anyone who crossed the border illegally would be arrested.

He said the Americans had Iraqi and Syria visas.

Friends and family say Bauer, his girlfriend Shourd, and Fattal, were adventurous travelers who accidentally stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time.

Bauer is a freelance journalist and photographer based in the Middle East who has reported from Iraq, Syria, Sudan’s Darfur region and Yemen, according to his Web site. He may have been in the region to cover the July 25 regional elections in Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish area.

Family members identified Fattal as another one of the detained. His father Jacob told The Associated Press on Monday that he did not have any updates from the State Department about his son, who graduated from the same university as Bauer.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed Monday to Iran for information on the three Americans to help determine their whereabouts. Swiss diplomats have been trying to obtain details from Iran on behalf of the Americans. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran because the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

In the U.S., Pacific News Service Executive Director Sandy Close, who hired Bauer to cover the elections in Kurdistan, said she does not believe the freelance journalist ever intended to go to neighboring Iran.

In an e-mail, Bauer told Close he wanted to “feel out the situation (in Kurdistan) and get some ideas for deeper stories.”

“Kurdistan is the big story in Iraq now,” Bauer wrote in the e-mail provided to The Associated Press. “I’m off to Kurdistan … ”

Close said Bauer sent her e-mails on Monday and Wednesday, then went backpacking with Shourd in a popular tourist area renowned for its scenery. It was unclear how the two met up with Fattal.

A fourth member of the group, Shon Meckfessel, was to have gone on the hike but did not because he felt sick.

Close said Bauer would not have deliberately tried to enter Iran.

“He did not express any interest in going to Iran. He did not speak Farsi, his passion was Arabic,” she said.

Bauer has traveled to the Middle East and North Africa and was most recently based in Damascus where he is working on a film about Darfur.

Bauer’s mother, Cindy Hickey of Pine City, Minn., and Shourd’s mother, Nora Shourd, said they are concerned for the safety and welfare of the group and hope they return safely.

Fattal’s father Jacob, who runs a tech magazine outside Philadelphia, also told reporters: “All we care about is the well-being of Josh and his two hiker friends.”

A Kurdish official in Iraq has said the three contacted a colleague to say they had entered Iran by mistake on Friday and were surrounded by troops. Iran’s state television initially said only that the Americans were arrested after they did not heed warnings from Iranian border guards.

Bauer and Shourd, both graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, had been living in the San Francisco Bay area. Close described Bauer as “an artist whose first love is photography. He’s also linguistically gifted and just wanted to immerse himself in the Middle East.”

Shourd has written for a number of online publications, including Brave New Traveler. She has also has taught English.

Ross Borden, founder of an online travel magazine that includes Brave New Traveler, described Shourd as “very professional. She wrote a great story for us.”

“She’s obviously a professional traveler, as you can see by her latest adventure, going hiking in Iraq,” he said. “Not many people go hiking in Iraq.”

Fattal spent three years recently living with a group dedicated to sustainable farming near Cottage Grove, Ore. He lived with about nine others and worked as the group’s intern coordinator before leaving about eight months ago, according to Jason Brown, who now holds Fattal’s job.

From January to June, Fattal traveled overseas as a teaching assistant with the International Honors Program, visiting Switzerland, India, South Africa and China on a global ecology program. Fattal had been a student in the program during college, president Joan Tiffany said.

“He’s a very thoughtful, caring person, soft-spoken, smart, bright. Has lots of travel experience, and is someone that I would expect to be an experienced camper,” Tiffany said.

Jason Dearen in San Francisco, Patrick Condon in Minneapolis, Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia and Michelle Locke in Berkeley, Calif. contributed to this report.

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