- Associated Press - Thursday, September 9, 2010

TEHRAN (AP) — Iran said it will free one of three Americans jailed for more than a year on Saturday in a clemency to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

The Culture Ministry sent a text message to reporters telling them to come to a Tehran hotel to witness the release. It is the same hotel where the three were allowed the only meeting with their mothers since they were detained in July 2009.

“Offering congratulations on Eid al-Fitr,” the message said referring to the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. “The release of one of the detained Americans will be Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Estaghlal hotel.” It is common in the Islamic world to mark the Eid al-Fitr holiday by showing clemency and releasing prisoners.

Iran has not said which one of the Americans would be released. But Sarah Shourd, 31, has told her mother she has serious medical problems.

Nora Shourd said her daughter told her in a telephone call in August that prison officials have denied her requests for medical treatment. The mother said they talked about her daughter’s medical problems, including a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells, and her solitary confinement in Tehran’s Evin prison.

During the American hostage crisis in 1979-1981, Iran first released women and African-Americans as a sign of respect for women and mercy toward minorities.

Ms. Shourd; her boyfriend, Shane Bauer, 27; and their friend Josh Fattal, 27, have been held in Iran since July 2009, when they were arrested along the Iraqi border. Iran has accused them of espionage; their families say they were hiking in Iraq’s largely peaceful mountainous northern Kurdish region and that if they crossed the border, it was accidental.

The imprisonment of the Americans has deepened the strains between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. has been the driving force behind rounds of sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear program, which Washington suspects is aimed at producing weapons. Iran denied that.

Iranian leaders have repeatedly suggested a link between the jailing of the Americans and Iranians held by the United States. Tehran is demanding the release of its citizens.

In Washington, the State Department said it was aware of reports on the release but could not confirm them. The United States has no diplomatic presence in Iran and one department official said there had not yet been any word about a possible release from the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which represents U.S. interests in the country.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the U.S. “would obviously welcome the release of one of the hikers” but stressed that Washington has long been calling for the release of all three on humanitarian grounds.

The Swiss Embassy in Tehran has handled consular affairs for the United States for about 30 years, since after 1979 Iranian revolution. Swiss diplomats refused to comment Thursday on any possible release of the three detained Americans but are expected to be involved in any transfer.

Ali Reza Shiravi, the head of Iran’s foreign media office at the Culture Ministry, confirmed that he had sent the message summoning reports to the hotel.

The high-rise Estaghlal hotel near Evin prison is where the three Americans’ mothers were allowed to visit them in May in a highly publicized trip.

Nora Shourd said the U.S.-based families of the hikers had seen the news reports out of Iran but had no idea whether they were true.

“We don’t know anything,” Ms. Shourd told the Associated Press. “We’re trying like crazy to see what we can find out. I hope it’s true — that’s all I can say for sure. But I don’t know if it is.”

Nora Shourd had the last contact with any of the three jailed Americans, when Sarah called her on Aug. 2 and the two spoke for three or four minutes.

Associated Press Writers Patrick Condon in Minneapolis and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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