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19 May 2010 16:24:26

US hikers held in Iran are spies: intelligence minister

TEHRAN, May 19, 2010 (AFP)
Iran's intelligence minister Wednesday accused three Americans hikers held in Iran for the past 10 months of being spies, just hours before their mothers are expected in Tehran, ISNA news agency reported.

"Iran acted in accordance with Islamic teachings and in a humanitarian way," Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi was quoted by the agency as saying, referring to a decision by Iran to grant visas for the mothers to travel to Tehran to see their children in prison.

Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, were detained last July 31 after straying across Iran's border in what they described as a mistake while on a hiking trip in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region.

The trio are being held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison. Washington insists they are innocent and should be released.

"Despite them being spies and entering Iran illegally, they were dealt with according to religious teachings and in a humanitarian way," Moslehi said.

"We have to see how the Americans will react towards the innocent Iranians kidnapped and transferred there," he added.

Moslehi first made the allegations that the trio were spies in April when he said Tehran has "compelling evidence that three Americans arrested in Iran last year were cooperating with intelligence services." He did not elaborate.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki had said in December that they faced charges of entering the country illegally.

The three mothers were expected in Tehran Wednesday evening after being granted visas for Iran last week.

Iran has given no official indication it is preparing to release the trio and simply arranging the visit by the mothers was considered a breakthrough in the impasse, one of many irritants in the US-Iranian relationship.

The Swiss government, acting as go-between in the absence of US-Iranian diplomatic relations, had to broker the visit.

Relations between Tehran and Washington have been poisoned for decades, with tensions currently focused on the Islamic republic's attempt to build a nuclear power capacity, said by Western powers to hide a covert military programme.
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