- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq | Iran’s state TV confirmed Saturday that the government has detained three Americans who crossed the border from northern Iraq, saying they failed to heed warnings from Iranian guards.

Kurdish officials from northern Iraq said the three - two men and a woman - were tourists who had mistakenly crossed into Iranian territory Friday while hiking in a mountainous area near the resort town of Ahmed Awaa.

“The Iranians said they have arrested them because they entered their land without legal permission,” said Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish regional government’s envoy to Washington.

Iran’s state-owned Arabic-language al-Alam TV station cited a “well-informed source” in the Interior Ministry who said that the three Americans were detained Friday after crossing into Iran’s Kurdistan province.

State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Saturday that Washington had asked the Swiss, who represent U.S. interests in Tehran, “to confirm these reports with Iranian authorities and, if true, to seek consular access” to the detained Americans.

The detentions were the latest irritant in relations between Iran and the United States, which have had no diplomatic ties since 1979. The two countries also are locked in a bitter dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program.

Kurds occupy an area that sprawls across southwestern Turkey, northern Iraq and eastern Iran. The borders are mountainous and not clearly marked.

Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region has been relatively free of the violence that plagues the rest of Iraq. Foreigners often feel freer to move around without security guards in the area, and it is relatively easy to enter the region from Turkey, particularly by plane. The Kurdish government generally grants visitors visas valid for one week when they arrive at the airport.

The ethnic minority gained autonomy after rising up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, and the region was protected from his forces by a U.S.-British no-fly zone.

The three Americans had traveled with a companion to Turkey, then entered the Kurdish region Tuesday through the border crossing at Zakho, the official said. They visited the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah on Wednesday. The next day, three of them took a taxi to Ahmed Awaa, a Kurdish security official said.

The official said the account came from a fourth member of their group who was feeling sick and had stayed behind in Sulaimaniyah.

The Iranian state TV report claimed the four Americans were together when they crossed the border, but “only one returned [to Iraq], while the three were arrested.”

The discrepancy could not immediately be reconciled.

The area where the three disappeared is a popular hiking destination known for a picturesque waterfall and rocky scenery as well as a thick growth of fruit and nut trees.

Kurdish officials said U.S. helicopters and Humvees deployed to the nearby city of Halabja to search for the Americans after they were reported missing on Friday but left after it was determined they had been seized by the Iranians.



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