SAN FRANCISCO - Freelance journalist Shane Bauer planned to cover the elections in northern Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region. His girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, was going with him on a backpacking trip. Another friend stayed put, sick with a cold.
Now, Bauer, Shourd and a third companion, Joshua Fattal, are believed to be held by Iranian authorities for crossing into Iranian territory illegally. Friends and family say the group were adventuresome travellers who accidentally stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time.
Pacific News Service Executive Director Sandy Close, who hired Bauer to cover the elections in Kurdistan, said she does not believe the freelance journalist ever intended to go to neighbouring Iran.
In an email, Bauer told Close he wanted to "feel out the situation (in Kurdistan) and get some ideas for deeper stories."
"Kurdistan is the big story in Iraq now," Bauer wrote in the email provided to The Associated Press. "I'm off to Kurdistan ... "
The status of the three remained unknown Monday despite efforts by Swiss diplomats to obtain details from the Iranian Foreign Minister. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also appealed to Iran for information.
Their disappearances were reminiscent of other episodes involving young American journalists who ended up in hostile territory.
Earlier this year, two American journalists detained near the North Korean border with China were sentenced to 12 years of hard labour for entering the country illegally and for "hostile acts." And in January, Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi was arrested on spying charges before being released in May.
Close said Bauer sent her emails on Monday and Wednesday, then went backpacking with Shourd in a popular tourist area renowned for its scenery. It was unclear how the two met up with Fattal.
A fourth member of the group, Shon Meckfessel, was to have gone on the hike but did not because he felt sick.
Close said Bauer wouldn't have deliberately tried to enter Iran.
"He did not express any interest in going to Iran. He did not speak Farsi, his passion was Arabic," she said.
Bauer has travelled to the Middle East and North Africa and was most recently based in Damascus where he is working on a film about Darfur.
Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey of Pine City, Minnesota, and Shourd's mother, Nora Shourd, said they are concerned for the safety and welfare of the group and hope they return safely.
Fattal's father, Jacob, who runs a tech magazine outside Philadelphia, also told reporters: "All we care about is the well-being of Josh and his two hiker friends," he said.
A Kurdish official in Iraq has said the three contacted a colleague to say they had entered Iran by mistake on Friday and were surrounded by troops. Iran's state television later said the Americans were arrested after they did not heed warnings from Iranian border guards.
Bauer and Shourd, both graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, had been living in the San Francisco Bay area. Close described Bauer as "an artist whose first love is photography. He's also linguistically gifted and just wanted to immerse himself in the Middle East."
One of the articles posted on Bauer's Web site is a piece written for The Nation about the U.S.-backed Iraq Special Operations Force. Richard Kim, senior editor of the magazine, praised Bauer, saying "he did excellent and meticulous work on that article."
Kim said Bauer is not currently on assignment for The Nation.
Shourd has written for a number of online publications, including Brave New Traveler. She has also has taught English.
Fattal spent three years recently living with a group dedicated to sustainable farming near Cottage Grove, Oregon. He lived with about nine others and worked as the group's intern co-ordinator before leaving about eight months ago, according to Jason Brown, who now holds Fattal's job.
From January to June, Fattal travelled overseas as a teaching assistant with the International Honors Program, visiting Switzerland, India, South Africa and China on a global ecology program. Fattal had been a student in the program during college, president Joan Tiffany said.
"He's a very thoughtful, caring person, soft-spoken, smart, bright. Has lots of travel experience, and is someone that I would expect to be an experienced camper," Tiffany said.
Meckfessel, a University of Washington graduate student, has travelled widely and was studying Arabic.
He is the author of a book about the Balkans called "Suffled How It Gush: A North American Anarchist in the Balkans." The title is derived from the slogan of an Albanian mineral water company.
His grandmother, Irene Meckfessel described her grandson as "very much interested in people and languages."
Also contributing to this story were Patrick Condon in Minneapolis and Maryclaire Dale in Philadelphia. Michelle Locke reported from Berkeley, California.