Iran says it will free U.S. detainee Sarah Shourd

TEHRAN Thu Sep 9, 2010 4:27pm EDT

1 of 2. Sarah Shourd speaks with journalists during a news conference in Tehran May 20, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Raheb Homavandi

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TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran will soon release Sarah Shourd, one of three detained American citizens accused of espionage, an Iranian official at the United Nations told Reuters Thursday.

Shourd was detained along with Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal near Iran's border with Iraq at the end of July 2009. Their families say the three were on a mountain hike in northern Iraq at the time. The United States says the spying allegations are unfounded.

"I would like to confirm that Iran will be releasing Sarah Shourd, an American hiker, very soon," a spokesman for Iran's mission to the United Nations said in an e-mailed statement.

A government official in Tehran had earlier said a release would occur Saturday, but did not say which American would be freed. Journalists have been invited to attend a ceremony on Saturday at the Esteqlal Hotel in Tehran for the release.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said all three Americans should be freed immediately since they had "committed no crime." He said U.S. officials were in touch with the Swiss government, which represents U.S. interests in Iran, to determine if the report of the pending release was true.

Iran's Intelligence Minister Haidar Moslehi has said Tehran had proof that the three Americans had links to intelligence services. He also said last month that investigations into spying allegations against the three would be completed soon.

Iran had also said they would be put on trial, without giving a date. They have not been formally charged. Under Iran's Islamic law, espionage can be punishable by death.

MOTHERS WELCOME REPORT

In a joint statement, the mothers of the trio welcomed the report and called for their children's immediate release.

"We hope and pray that the reports are true and that this signals the end of all three of our children's long and difficult detention," said the mothers, who visited their children briefly in Tehran in May and had urged Iranian authorities to make a gesture of goodwill by releasing them.

The case has further complicated relations between Tehran and Washington already fraught over Iran's nuclear activity.

Western powers suspect Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian atomic energy program. Tehran denies this, saying it needs nuclear technology to generate electricity.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in February that the three U.S. citizens might be swapped for the release of Iranians jailed in the United States. Washington cut diplomatic ties with Iran shortly after its 1979 Islamic revolution.

Iran's decision to release one of the Americans could be a display of Islamic clemency on the occasion of the Eid Al-Fitr when Muslims celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Iran has accused the United States and its European allies of trying to topple the clerical establishment by fomenting unrest that jolted the country after last year's disputed presidential election.

Washington has backed Iran's pro-reform opposition which says the vote was rigged to secure Ahmadinejad's re-election. Iranian authorities have denied the accusation.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao)

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