x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Kurd official: Iran has detained three Americans

Kurdish officials say Iran has confirmed it detained three Americans who were near the Iranian border on a hiking trip.

SULAIMANIYAH, IRAQ // Iran has confirmed it detained three Americans who were in the area of the Iranian border while on a hiking trip, Kurdish officials said today. The US State Department has said it was looking into the situation. The Kurdish regional government's envoy to Washington, Qubad Talabani, said the three were tourists and are in Iranian custody. He said the Americans mistakenly crossed into Iranian territory on Friday at the border town of Ahmed Awaa.

"The Iranians said they have arrested them because they entered their land without legal permission," he said. Iranian officials have made no comment. Iran's embassy in Baghdad was closed today. The self-ruled Kurdish region has been relatively free of the violence that plagues the rest of Iraq. Foreigners often feel freer to move around without security guards in the area, and tourists have been known to visit the scenic area.

It is relatively easy for tourists to get into the region, particularly if they arrive by aeroplane. The Kurdish government generally grants visitors to the Kurdish area visas valid for one week when they arrive at the airport. A senior security official in Sulaimaniyah, near the Iranian border in northern Iraq's oil-rich Kurd region, said today the three were last heard from after they contacted a friend and said they entered Iran by mistake and troops surrounded them.

There has been no contact with them since, he said. He also said Iranian army officials at the border have confirmed to Iraqi authorities the three were arrested. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said yesterday that the US was "aware of the report and is investigating. We are using all available means to determine the facts in this case." The US Embassy in Baghdad said today it was still unable to confirm any details.

US helicopters were buzzing overhead and military vehicles had moved into the Kurdish city of Halabja to search for the Americans, said a Kurdish border force official. According to the security official, the missing Americans were tourists hiking near Halabja and Ahmed Awaa. The four had travelled to Turkey, then entered the Kurdish region Tuesday through the Ibrahim Al-Khalil border point in Zakho, the official said.

They visited the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah on Wednesday. The next day, three of them took a taxi to Ahmed Awaa where they told their companion that they planned to stay at a nearby resort, the official said. * AP