Iran Says Three U.S. Citizens Arrested; U.S. Taps Allies for Diplomatic Help

By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 2, 2009

BAGHDAD, Aug. 1 -- Iranian television said Saturday that Tehran arrested three Americans who crossed the border from northern Iraq.

The Americans, two men and a woman, were arrested Friday after they entered Iran while hiking in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, a Kurdish security official said.

A U.S. official in Baghdad said the United States asked the Swiss, who represent U.S. interests in Iran, to investigate the reports. Iran and the United States broke off diplomatic ties shortly after the Islamic revolution in 1979.

"We've seen the reports, and we are not able to confirm any details," the U.S. official said. "We have asked the Swiss protection power for information about whether they were detained by Iranians."

The Kurdish official said the Americans were tourists who came to the region from Turkey on Tuesday through the Ibrahim Al-Khalil border point in Zakho, Iraq. They visited Irbil, the Kurdish capital, and on Wednesday arrived in Sulaymaniyah, the region's second-largest city, 160 miles northeast of Baghdad.

The Americans went hiking between Halabja and Ahmad Awa, a picturesque tourist attraction 55 miles from Sulaymaniyah.

"We are talking with the Iranian representatives in the region and the U.S. consulate here to try to find a solution for this problem," said Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the Kurdish foreign relations department. "But we haven't reached anything yet."

Al-Alam, an Iranian television station, said four Americans crossed into the country on Friday, ignoring warnings from border guards that the bounds in the area were not clearly marked. The station said that three were arrested and that the fourth returned to Iraq.

Kurdish officials identified the Americans as Shaun Gabriel Maxwell, Shane Bower, Sara Short and Joshua Steel. They said one of them -- it was unclear which -- remained at a hotel because he was feeling sick. His friends contacted him after they were detained, and he informed the U.S. Embassy of their arrest. He is now at the embassy in Baghdad, Kurdish officials said.

Iranian state television reported earlier Saturday that the Americans were U.S. soldiers. "Three U.S. military personnel went missing in an area bordering Iran-Iraq," a news anchor said. "The reason for the presence of these American soldiers is not known."

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