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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

American Hiker Claimed to be Iranian (Updated) Hikers Started Journey Close to Midnight

Previous report at this link.

One of the three Americans in Iran custody over "illegal entry" had claimed to be an Iranian national before crossing into the country from Iraq.

A tea-house owner in Iraq's Ahmad Awa told Press TV that the Americans had stopped at his place for tea on the eve of Friday, July 31 - the that the three were arrested by Iranian security guards in Western city of Marivan.

"They arrived at 10:30 pm," the tea-house owner told Press TV, adding that “the men did not talk but the woman, speaking Syrian Arabic, asked for tea.“

"The woman was not wearing Hijab and was fair-skinned, she said that she spoke Egyptian Arabic as well," he said.

"I asked them to sit down, but the woman said they were in a hurry," added the owner. "She said she was from Mahabad and that they wanted to go to Iran. I showed them the way to Iran and they left.” The city of Mahabad, Iran is proximate to where the hikers were arrested.

(So they left to go "hiking" at 10:30 p.m. No wonder they got lost. No flashlights!)

Kurdestan province's deputy governor for political-security affairs, Iraj Hassanzadeh, had earlier announced that the three identified as Shane Bower, Sara Short and Joshua Steel, were traveling on Syrian and Iraqi visas.

In the video below at 4:12, Shon Meckfessel states that once the hikers got near the border area "they camped out that night and kept walking", in essence admitting that the hikers went through the border area late at night:

Witnesses say US Group hiked far from Kurdistan's tourist areas  8.8.2009 
By Khabat Nawzad in Ahmed Awa, Iraqi Kurdistan region

Locals question why Americans ventured alone to remote area near Iranian border. 
Ahmed Awa, Sulaimaniyah, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — Three Americans believed to have been detained by Iran hiked a difficult trail to a remote border area that tourists and locals rarely visit, IWPR has been told.

Residents of Ahmed Awa, a resort village in Iraqi Kurdistan where the Americans were last seen, say the area where they are reported to have accidentally crossed over into Iran is an hours-long hike up a steep, uninhabited mountain frequented by smugglers.

Locals say few people from the area would climb the barren, rocky mountain without a guide for fear of getting lost. Off the narrow trails, landmines laid during the Iran-Iraq war remain a danger, they say.  
“The mountain isn’t good for tours and picnics,” said Mohammed Sabir, a resident of Ahmad Awa, which is about 100 kilometres east of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. “There were [military] barracks on the mountain in the past. No tourists go up there."

"I am from this place and I still can’t get [to the border],” said Kaiwan Nuradin Ala, a 20-year-old owner of a car park that caters to tourists in Ahmed Awa. “I have no doubt that someone has shown them the way.”

The Americans, Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 30, and Joshua Fattal, 27, were arrested by Iranian border security for illegally crossing into Iranian territory on July 31, United States media reported.

They had apparently travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan for a short vacation from Damascus earlier in the week and arrived in Sulaimaniyah on July 29, according to a statement by Shon Meckfessel, who journeyed with the three to Iraqi Kurdistan but did not go to Ahmed Awa because he fell ill.

Meckfessel’s statement was published on the website of The Nation, a left-leaning American magazine. Bauer, a freelance journalist, had written a story from Baghdad for The Nation in June.

Meckfessel said the four decided to visit Ahmed Awa after asking people in Sulaimaniyah for “good places to explore the mountainous terrain”. According to the statement, he believed Ahmed Awa was “far from any sort of risk” and did not know the village was near the Iranian border.

Meckfessel said that he was in regular phone contact with his friends, reporting they went to Ahmed Awa on July 30 and camped on the mountain that night. The next day at 1.30 pm, Meckfessel, who was still in a hotel in Sulaimaniyah, said Bauer called to tell him they were being taken into custody and to call the US embassy.

Iraqi border guards found the Americans’ personal possessions including a book, notebook and a blanket a few hundred metres from the Iranian border, said brigadier-general Ahmad Gharib, chief of border guards in Sulaimaniyah.

Iranian state media reported last week the Americans were arrested for illegally crossing the border, and an Iranian member of parliament said they may be charged with spying.

The Iranian government has not confirmed the arrests with Baghdad or the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, Falah Mustafa, the KRG’s foreign relations chief told IWPR. He said he is working with the foreign ministry in Baghdad and the Iranian consulate in Erbil to verify the whereabouts of the Americans.

The KRG and the Iraqi government enjoy good relations with both Iran and the United States. Tehran and Washington do not have diplomatic ties.

Mustafa said the KRG is communicating with the US government on the case, calling it a “humanitarian issue”.

“We want to find a resolution to this problem,” he said.

He compared the detentions to those of two US journalists sentenced to 12 years hard labour for illegally entering North Korea earlier this year. They were pardoned and returned to the United States earlier this week.

Kurds, Arabs and westerners residing in Iraq visit Ahmed Awa for its breathtaking mountain scenery, cool air and a nearby waterfall. But its remote location in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan makes Ahmed Awa less popular than more centrally-located mountain resorts.

Most visitors to Ahmed Awa do not venture past the picturesque waterfall, the area’s primary attraction. Hiking is not a popular activity in Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly in areas near the Iranian border which are pocked with land mines.

Shortly after the waterfall the mountain becomes steep and there are no roads or water sources, local people say.

Iran lies just over the crest of the mountain. Residents, many of whom have family on the other side of the border, say they avoid the mountain because trails are narrow, tricky to navigate and difficult to climb.

Land mines lie off of the trails, which were shaped by local people who graze their horses on the mountain and smugglers who carry fuel from Iran into Iraq in winter, residents say. The border is poorly demarcated, they add.

"There was barbed wire there in the past, but not any more,” said Sabir, the Ahmed Awa resident. “It is easy to cross the borders and not know it. Iranian [border] forces used to make arrests, but now not a lot of people go there and if they do they are familiar enough with the area to avoid arrest."

Ahmed Awa tourism workers say they remember the Americans but had little to do with them.

Bahman Muhsin Fayaq, said the three came into his small shop in Ahmed Awa around 3 pm searching for an item, but language barriers prevented him from understanding what they needed. People in the area speak Kurdish.

Suhaib Abbas Hama-Saeed, who owns a small teahouse on a bridge near the waterfall, reported the Americans drank tea and stood on the bridge a little after 10 pm the night before they went missing. Hama-Saeed said Shourd spoke broken Arabic.

Both Fayaq and Hama-Saeed said they do not remember the Americans carrying anything with them.

Most tourists admire the waterfall and picnic along the side of the road.

Iraqi Kurdistan's striking scenery may be appealing to westerners, but adventure travel has not taken root in this region. For Iraqi Kurds, the mountains represent the sites of past battles, not places to be explored on foot for leisure.

Some in Ahmed Awa are suspicious that the Americans were more than just innocent travellers, in part because they ventured out alone and far from tourist areas.

"Ahmad Awa is always full of foreigners and Americans,” Sabir said. “But they don’t climb the mountain.”

In US media reports, friends and family members described the three Americans as adventurers with an interest in the Middle East.

According to Meckfessel, Bauer is a language student and freelance journalist, Shroud is an English teacher in Syria, and Fattal arranges student exchange trips. On his website, Bauer reports that he is fluent in Arabic.

Meckfessel said in his statement, “I hope that people understand my friends' presence in the area for what it was: a simple and very regrettable mistake.”

The US State Department has appealed for information on the missing Americans.

An Iranian journalist in Tehran who requested anonymity said he believes the Americans will be released if the authorities determine that they mistakenly crossed the border. He speculated that their release “might ease relations” between Iran and the US.

“Iran doesn’t want to create more problems by holding the three Americans,” he said.

The night the travellers were reported missing, US helicopters flew over Ahmed Awa and the nearby town of Halabja. Checkpoints were set up and Kurdish forces searched the mountain.

Security sweeps are rare in northern Iraq, which has remained sheltered from the violence that has plagued much of the country.

KRG security and government officials say border patrols have not been beefed up since the incident but police in Khormel, the main town near Ahmed Awa, warned an IWPR reporter not to venture past the tourist area or go near the border.

Locals say Ahmed Awa is quiet now.

"I don’t think the incident will hurt tourism in the area,” said Afan Sidiq, who sells flip-flops and other items for tourists.

Khabat Nawzad is an IWPR-trained journalist based in Halabja, Iraqi Kurdistan region.
In other news:

The Iraqi regional security chief in Sulaimaniyah said the area is poorly marked and the three simply lost their bearings..."Our investigations proved there was no political or military reason for the border crossing"...said the Iraqi official, Hakim Qadir Humat Jan. "They came as tourists. Nothing about the way they were traveling points to a possibility of spying. Their financial situation was also weak - they traveled in a crowded bus and stayed at a cheap hotel - and they entered Kurdistan legally. I call on the Iranians to set them free," Jan said.
In the same report, Shourd is described as Bauer's "girlfriend".

Bauer was in the region to cover the July 25 regional elections in Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish area, according to Pacific News Service Executive Director Sandy Close, who said she does not believe he ever intended to go to neighboring Iran....he wanted to "feel out the situation (in Kurdistan) and get some ideas for deeper stories," she said. "Kurdistan is the big story in Iraq now," Bauer wrote..."I'm off to Kurdistan ... "
Another report states: Seemingly setting the stage for espionage charges, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency ran a story Tuesday claiming that the CIA and Mossad were actively operating in Iraq's Kurdish provinces and attempting to convert the populace to Christianity. Related WUFYS report here.
And: The three Americans all had attended the University of California at Berkeley.

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