Missing Hikers: Families Plead for Safety of Americans Held in Iran

Three hikers were detained by armed guards, accused of illegal border crossing.

August 19, 2009, 8:13 PM

Aug. 20, 2009— -- The families of three Americans who have been detained in Iran since late last month after a hiking trip gone wrong say the trio were typically very careful and aware of their surroundings.

And they're eager to hear word from their loved ones, as Iran has disclosed little information about the hikers' status since their July 31 detainment.

Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 30, and Joshua Fattal, 27, were taken into custody while hiking in the mountains along the border of Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region in the north, and Iran. They were surrounded by armed Iranian guards and taken into custody after they strayed across the border into Iran.

They have been accused of ignoring border patrol and possibly spying, but the Iranian government has not disclosed the charges against the Americans nor allowed anyone to visit them.

Family members of the hikers told "Good Morning America" today that the area is heavily wooded with few markings that would indicate where exactly the border was.

"There's not like a big sign saying, 'You're about to go into Iran,'" Shannon Bauer, Shane Bauer's sister, said.

"They're meticulous planners," said Chris Rapp, Shourd's brother. "Typically they're very careful about where they are and what they're doing."

U.S. officials are looking into the Americans' fate, but have gotten few answers thus far.

"We asked our Swiss partners who represent our interests in Iran to please pursue our inquiries to determine the status of the three missing Americans," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Aug. 3.

The State Department admitted Wednesday that "no progress" has been made.

"Switzerland has not been granted consular access to the three American hikers. Iran has not provided information about their location and whether or not any charges have been filed against them," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly. "We are deeply concerned about their safety and welfare."

Hikers' Families Taking Comfort in Release of Other Americans

The three friends were on a vacation trek through the mountains when they crossed the Iran border.

Though the State Department has warned Americans about the risks of visiting that part of the world, Fattal's brother Alex said Kurdistan actually has a burgeoning tourist economy.

Yet he understands the sentiments of some who said the three shouldn't have been there in the first place.

"We can appreciate that people may feel that. But this area of Iran, Kurdistan has really been a safe area," he said. "This is really a beautiful area, and it's a great tourist area."

No matter what happened the day, the three were taken by Iranian officials and their families just want them home. Alex Fattal said the families were encouraged by the recent release of other Americans detained for similar offenses.

He said they were contacted by sisters Lisa and Laura Ling after Laura Ling was freed last month from North Korea along with fellow journalist Euna Lee. The two were arrested and sentenced to hard labor after straying across the North Korean border.

Alex Fattal said he just wants to see his brother and to take him home to shoot hoops in the driveway. Shannon Bauer said she wants to be able to tell her brother that she loves him.

"As days go by, all of us as family members want to figure out a way to bring them home," Rapp said.

"Every day when I wake up, it's the first thing I think about, but nothing yet," Shannon Bauer said.

Shane Bauer, who lives in Damascus, is a freelance journalist who was excited about reporting from Iraqi Kurdistan. Shourd, Bauer's girlfriend, is a teacher and travel writer.

Joshua Fattal arranges trips for foreign exchange students, and his family has roots in Iraq.

A fourth member of the group, Shon Meckfessel, did not feel well and had stayed behind at the hotel instead of going on the hike.

On July 31 Meckfessel received a phone call from Bauer telling him they were surrounded by armed men and being taken into custody.

Meckfessel says his friends did not intentionally cross into Iran.

"There is no 'Lonely Planet Iraqi Kurdistan,'" Meckfessel wrote in a statement, referring to the popular travel guidebooks. "I hope that people understand my friends' presence in the area for what it was: a simple and very regrettable mistake."

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