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Iran says probe on detained U.S. hikers to end soon

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Investigations into spying allegations against three American hikers detained in Iran will be completed soon, Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi said in a news report on Saturday.

Laura Fattal (L), Cindy Hickey (C) and Nora Shourd (R), the mothers of Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd respectively, hold pictures of their children while protesting for their release with others outside the Iran Mission in New York, July 30, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal were detained after they strayed into Iran from northern Iraq at the end of July 2009, further complicating relations between Tehran and Washington already deadlocked over Iran’s nuclear work.

“Investigations about the three Americans will be completed soon. The result will be announced then,” Moslehi said in a report carried by Iran’s student news agency, ISNA.

Iran has said the three Americans would be put on trial, without giving a date. They have not formally been charged with spying.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in February that the three U.S. citizens may be swapped for the release of Iranians jailed in the United States.

Iran said last year it believed 11 Iranians were being held in the U.S., including a former deputy defense minister who disappeared in 2007.

The United States, which cut diplomatic ties with Iran shortly after its 1979 Islamic revolution, has said the charges against the hikers are totally unfounded and they should be released. Under Iran’s Islamic law, espionage can be punishable by death.

Families of the trio said they were hiking and had strayed across the border accidentally. Their mothers visited Tehran briefly in May and urged Iranian authorities to release them.

The West suspects Iran is trying to build bombs under cover of a civilian nuclear program. Tehran denies this, saying it needs nuclear technology to generate power.

Iran’s hardline authorities repeatedly have accused foreign powers of fuelling unrest following a disputed presidential election last year.

Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 sparked Iran’s worst violence since the revolution.

Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Michael Roddy