Journalist Hiker Never Intended to Cover Iran

Iranian government accused the three hikers of being CIA agents

By Asha Beh, Vince Lattanzio and Teresa Masterson
|  Wednesday, Aug 5, 2009  |  Updated 2:50 PM EDT
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Journalist Hiker Never Intended to Cover Iran

Mariam Alam, Facebook

A photo of Josh Fattal, one of the hikers allegedly arrested in Iran, from his Facebook profile.

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Freelance journalist Shane Bauer, one of the three Americans detained and accused of being CIA agents in Iran, was only interested in covering Kurdistan, says his editor.

Pacific News Service Executive Director Sandy Close, who hired Bauer to cover the elections in northern Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region, said she does not believe the freelance journalist ever intended to go to neighboring Iran.

In an email, 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 email provided to The Associated Press. "I'm off to Kurdistan ... "

Close said Bauer sent her emails on Monday and Wednesday, then went backpacking with his girlfriend Sarah Shourd in a popular tourist area renowned for its scenery. It was unclear how the two met up with Elkins Park, Pa. native Joshua Fattal. Close said Bauer wouldn't have deliberately tried to enter Iran.

The Iranian government is accusing the three American backpackers, who stumbled into the country while hiking in Iraq's Kurdish region, of being CIA agents.

Fattal was hiking with Bauer and Shourd along the Iraq-Iran border Friday afternoon, when the trio accidentally crossed into Iranian territory. Iranian authorities arrested the group and no one has heard from them since. Now, efforts are under way to secure their release.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Iran to "return them as quickly as possible" Monday, as the Swiss work to learn their fate. The U.S. broke diplomatic ties with the nation after the 1979 hostage crisis and revolution. Switzerland has represented U.S. interests in Tehran since.

The Arabic language Al-Alam, however, quoted the deputy governor of Iran's Kurdistan province later Tuesday as saying the American hikers were being held on the outskirts of Marivan district while an investigation was conducted. Iraj Hassanzadeh said the hikers were not being interrogated.

Fattal is a 2000 graduate of Cheltenham High School. Fattal's mother told NBC Philadelphia that "my husband and I are only concerned with the health and welfare of Josh, Shane and Sara."

Officials say two of the hikers had been studying Arabic in Damascus, Syria. 

About 1 p.m. Friday, the hikers telephoned friend Shon Meckfessel, who had remained behind in Sulaymaniya, Iraq and told him they were surrounded by armed men, NBC News confirmed. The friend raised the alarm, and the three haven't been heard from since, a Kurdish official said.

Iran state TV said on Saturday that the three Americans were arrested after they failed to heed warnings from Iranian border guards. On Monday, Col. Anwar Haj Omar of the Halabja police force in northern Iraq told Tehran-based television network al-Alam that the three were "agents" who were "working with the CIA." U.S. officials have not confirmed nor denied the claim.

On July 17, Fattal posted an entry on his Facebook page saying that he was in the Middle East.  In response to a friend's query, he wrote that he was on his way to Damascus and also that he was planning to be in Kurdistan, the Register-Guard reported.

The entry reads: “… overland is very long indeed, i hope to arrive tomorrow, i know my hosts are planning a trip in the comıng weeks, for a week or so, i think to Kurdistan …”

On Wednesday, July 29 entries on his Facebook page, Fattal wrote that he is “getting in touch with my roots between the tigres and euphrates valleys …” and that “Iraq is on my mind.”

Kurdish security officials told NBC News that camping equipment and two backpacks were found in the area where they were taken into custody.

The detentions come at a delicate time in relations between the United States and Iran, which is facing a domestic crisis as the opposition continues to protest the results of the June 12 presidential election.

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