TEHRAN, May 18 (Reuters) – Five Iranians detained by U.S. forces in northern Iraq could be freed within the next month, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Friday.
Washington says the five men, detained in January, are linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and were backing militants in Iraq. Iran insists they are diplomats, wants them freed and has requested access.
Mottaki said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, who visited Tehran in April, had indicated they could be freed by June 21. “In Mr Zebari’s trip, he said that (those detained) will be released in Khordad,” Mottaki said, referring to the Iranian month of Khordad, which runs from May 22 to June 21.
Mottaki added that Zebari had said he was quoting U.S. officials in his comments.
Mottaki said the five detainees had expressed a wish to meet Iranian consular officials before seeing family members. “Fifteen days ago, it was discussed that the families could meet their arrested loved ones and even some preliminary work was done,” Mottaki told reporters in Tehran at a meeting with family members. He did not say who the discussions were with. “But our colleagues in detention said that we prefer to have a meeting with consulate officials first and then with our families,” he said.
Mottaki repeated Iran’s position that the detention was illegal and said he hoped the men would be released soon. “I told Mr Zebari that even one hour of illegally keeping them in detention is not justified,” he said.
Iranian family members voiced fears about their detained loves ones during the meeting with Mottaki. “I was supposed to have contact with my husband by phone but it did not happen. We are really worried about them and about the condition they are in and (we are worried) that their health is in danger,” the wife of Majid Ghaemi, one of the detained, told reporters.
The wife of Hamid Reza Asgari-Shokouh said: “About a month ago my husband spoke to me very nervously and hurriedly just to say hi and (we spoke) for about a minute or two and he said the Foreign Ministry is following up our issue.” The spouses did not give their full names.
Officials named the other three detained as Bagher Ghabishavi, Moussa Chegini and Abbas Hatami Kasavand.
Iranian and U.S. officials are to meet in Iraq on May 28 to discuss security in the country, in a rare face-to-face meeting between the two rivals which have not had diplomatic relations since shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The five Iranians were detained in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil. It is not clear where they are being held, but the U.S. military says they have been visited twice by the International Committee of the Red Cross.