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Spying appears to be the charge that three American hikers may face in Iran. They strayed across the border from Kurdistan late last week. They are now officially under arrest and facing interrogation by Iranian authorities. All three are freelance journalists, but they were traveling as tourists.

NPR's Richard Gonzales has more.

RICHARD GONZALES: Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Joshua Fattal are all graduates of UC Berkeley, with considerable experience traveling and reporting from abroad. Friends say they are idealistic and concerned with human rights. Bauer, who is 27, and Shourd, 30, are romantically involved. About a year ago, they had relocated to the Middle East, where both solicited freelance assignments from a variety of American media companies. One of those projects had Bauer reporting for Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now!"

Mr. SHANE BAUER (Freelance Journalist): Sahwa members are waiting to see whether the Shia-led government will live up to its promise to incorporate them into the armed forces. Some regular Iraqis are nervous and are wondering whether the Sahwa's allegiances will extend farther than their paychecks. Reporting from Baghdad, this is Shane Bauer and Jacquie Soohen for "Democracy Now!"

GONZALES: On his Web site, Bauer also offers clips of several documentaries he's worked on, including this one about rebels in Darfur. Here's one of the interviews Bauer did there.

Unidentified Man: The problem is (unintelligible). There is not any hospitals. There's nothing. Even there's no water for drink. For these people, they should talk to (unintelligible).

GONZALES: In recent months, Bauer had filed several photo essays for the San Francisco-based New American Media. Its executive editor, Sandy Close, says she received an email from Bauer on July 27th, saying that he planned to go to Kurdistan to cover its elections.

Ms. SANDY CLOSE (Executive Editor, New American Media): What happened at that point, how he got into the hills, how he wound up crossing the border — I have no idea.

GONZALES: According to officials in Kurdistan, Bauer, Shourd and Fattal took a cab to a resort near the Iranian border. They were on a hiking trip when they wandered into Iranian territory. Kurdish officials say they were last heard from when they contacted a colleague to say they were surrounded by Iranian troops. Sandy Close says Bauer was a careful planner who would not have put himself or his girlfriend, Shourd, in harm's way.

Ms. CLOSE: Never in the year that we've been in correspondence has he indicated any interest in covering Iran. He didn't know Farsi. It's very - it's unthinkable to me that he would've just simply decided on some crash adventure. I don't believe it.

GONZALES: Sarah Shourd is also a freelance writer. She has filed about the Middle East for several online travel sites. The third American, Joshua Fattal, had recently spent three years living and working on a farm in Oregon. For the past six months, Fattal had worked as a teaching assistant for the Boston-based International Honors Program, which sponsors American college students abroad. Little is known about how he joined Bauer and Shourd for their ill-fated trip to Kurdistan.

This case echoes the experience of American journalist Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran earlier this year, accused of spying and sentenced to eight years in prison before she was released in May. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called on the Iranian government to provide information on the missing Americans, and to return them as quickly as possible.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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