SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq, (AP) – Iran state TV confirmed Saturday that it has detained three Americans who crossed the border from northern Iraq, saying they failed to heed warnings from Iranian guards. Kurdish officials from the self-ruled region in northern Iraq said the three — two men and a woman — were tourists who had mistakenly crossed into Iranian territory Friday while hiking in a mountainous area near the resort town of Ahmed Awaa.
“The Iranians said they have arrested them because they entered their land without legal permission,” said Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish regional government’s envoy to Washington.
Iran’s state owned Arabic-language al-Alam TV station cited a “well-informed source” in the Interior Ministry that the three Americans were detained Friday after crossing into Iran’s Kurdistan province.
The report said the Americans were arrested after they did not heed warnings from Iranian border guards.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Saturday that Washington had asked the Swiss, who represent U.S. interests in Tehran, “to confirm these reports with Iranian authorities and, if true, to seek consular access” to the detained Americans.
The detentions were the latest irritant in relations between Iran and the United States, which have had no diplomatic ties since 1979 when militant students stormed the U.S Embassy in Tehran and took Americans there hostage for 444 days. The two countries also are locked in a bitter dispute over Tehran’s nuclear program.
They also came at a sensitive time for the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government as it seeks to balance delicate ties between its U.S. and Iranian allies. Iraqi security forces recently staged a deadly raid on a camp housing an Iranian opposition group that was protected by the American military for years. The raid was applauded by Tehran.
Kurds occupy an area that sprawls across southwestern Turkey, northern Iraq and eastern Iran. The borders are mountainous and not clearly marked, making them popular smuggling routes for centuries.
Iraq’s 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 it’s relatively easy to enter the region from Turkey, particularly by plane. The Kurdish government generally grants visitors visas valid for one week when they arrive at the airport.
The ethnic minority gained autonomy after rising up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, and the region was protected from his forces by a U.S.-British no-fly zone until Saddam’s fall after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The three Americans had traveled with a companion to Turkey, then entered the Kurdish region Tuesday through the border crossing at Zakho and traveled to Sulaimaniyah, according to the Kurdish regional government. On Thursday, the three took a taxi to Ahmed Awaa, it added.
The regional government’s statement said the three went astray during an excursion and were detained by Iranian authorities at the border at about 1:30 p.m. Friday.
“After walking around the area and hiking the mountain, they lost their way due to their lack of familiarity with the location, and entered Iranian territory,” it said, pledging to work with U.S. and Iranian officials to find a solution.
The three were last heard from after they contacted a friend saying they had entered Iran by mistake and troops had surrounded them, a Kurdish security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.
The official said the account came from the fourth member of their group who was feeling sick and had stayed behind in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad.
The Iranian state TV report claimed the four Americans were together when they crossed the border, but “only one returned (to Iraq), while the three were arrested.”
The discrepancy could not immediately be reconciled.
The area where the three disappeared is a popular hiking destination known for a picturesque waterfall and rocky scenery as well as a thick growth of fruit and nut trees. The official said camping equipment and two backpacks apparently belonging to the Americans were found in the area and it seemed they were hiking above the waterfall when they accidentally crossed the border.
Kurdish officials said U.S. helicopters and Humvees deployed to the nearby city of Halabja to search for the Americans after they were reported missing on Friday but left after it was determined they had been seized by the Iranians.
In March 2007, Iranian forces captured 15 British service members as they carried out a boarding operation in two inflatable boats launched from the HMS Cornwall in waters off southern Iraq.
Iran charged them with being in its territorial waters, and the government televised apologies by some of the captured crew. They were all eventually freed without an apology from Britain, which steadfastly insisted the crew members were taken in Iraqi waters where they were authorized to be.