TEHRAN, Iran - Iran accused three detained Americans of spying Monday, signalling Tehran intends to put them on trial. It drew a sharp U.S. response that the charges are baseless because the hikers strayed across the border from Iraq.
The announcement comes as Washington and Tehran are deadlocked in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, raising concern that the three could be used as bargaining chips in the talks or to seek the return of Iranians they say are missing.
Relatives and the U.S government say the three were innocent tourists on an adventure hike in northern Iraq and accidentally crossed into Iran where they were arrested on July 31.
Commenting on the case, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the U.S. of jailing innocent Iranians and pointed to two of his countrymen - a nuclear scientist and a top defence official - who disappeared in recent years. Tehran accuses the U.S. of kidnapping them. The U.S. has refused comment on the two, and there has been speculation they defected to the West.
Ahmadinejad, asked about the spying accusations against the Americans, told reporters in Istanbul, Turkey, said he had no opinion about the case.
"It must be judged by the judiciary, whether they are spies or not," he said. "There are some Iranians who have spent many years in prison without doing anything wrong, in American prisons."
He said the Americans had crossed the border illegally and Iran has a right to punish them.
"In all countries, crossing borders would have a very heavy sentence, according to the law," he said. "Hopefully, they will have an appropriate answer in the court, and hopefully they will convince the judge that they did not have any intention of crossing the border illegally."
The Americans - Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27 - have been held in Iran's Evin prison, where Swiss diplomats have visited them twice and said they are healthy.
The three graduates of the University of California at Berkeley had been trekking in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, their relatives say.
The case recalled that of an American-Iranian journalist, Roxanna Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January and convicted of espionage. After heavy pressure from the U.S., she was freed on appeal in May and returned home - and several months later, the U.S. military released five Iranians it had held for more than two years.
The accusations against the three Americans could be a first step in a similar move by Iran to put them on trial and convict them, then arrange their release, aiming to get concessions.
Monday's announcement by Tehran's top prosecutor was the first official word from Iran of espionage allegations against the three. Until now, Iranian officials have only spoken about the Americans in broad terms, saying even after months of questioning that they were still trying to determine why they had entered Iran.
Hoping to prove that they were simply vacationing, the families released videos taken by a friend just two days before their detention, showing the three backpackers dancing and joking in an unfinished cinder block building they came across in Kurdistan's mountains. In one video, Fattal performed an impromptu rap about Iraq.
Bauer and Shourd had been living in Damascus - he studying Arabic, she teaching English - and both had done freelance journalism or writing online. Friends described them as passionate adventurers interested in the Middle East and human rights.
Fattal, who spent three years with a group dedicated to sustainable farming near Cottage Grove, Ore., had been overseas since January as a teaching assistant with the International Honors Program.
The hikers' families declined interview requests Monday by The Associated Press, but issued a statement saying "the allegations that our loved ones may have been engaged in espionage is untrue."
"It is entirely at odds with the people Shane, Sarah and Josh are and with anything that Iran can have learned about them since they were detained on July 31," it said.
It added that the three have been held for more than 100 days "simply because they apparently strayed into Iran by accident while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan. We again call on Iran to show compassion to our loved ones and release them without delay. This has already gone on for too long."
The White House also called for their release, and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the spying accusations were baseless.
"We believe strongly that there is no evidence to support any charge whatsoever," she said in Berlin. "And we would renew our request ... that the Iranian government exercise compassion and release them, so they can return home."
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, whose country holds the rotating European Union presidency, warned Iran against using "the lives of very young people for political purposes."
Tehran chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said the three "have been accused of espionage" and that investigations were continuing, according to the state news agency IRNA. "An opinion (on their case) will be given in the not-distant future," he said.
He gave no further details on the spying allegations.
It was not clear from his comments whether formal charges had been filed against the Americans, since the word in Farsi he used could mean either "accused" or "charged." But it was a signal that Iranian authorities intend to prosecute them - and on far stiffer charges than simply accidentally crossing the border.
In Iran's opaque judicial system, the process of indictment and trial often take place behind closed doors.
In September, Ahmadinejad told the AP that the Americans had violated the law by crossing the border. "What I can ask is that the judiciary expedites the process and gives it its full attention, and to basically take a look at the case with maximum leniency," he said at the time.
The announcement comes as the United States and its allies are pressing Iran to accept a U.N.-drafted plan under which Iran would send most of its low-enriched uranium abroad. But so far, Tehran has balked at the proposal, resisting some of its key provisions and saying it wants further negotiations.
The deal is key to U.S. attempts to ease tensions of Iran's nuclear program because it would at least temporarily leave Iran without enough uranium to develop into a nuclear weapon. Iran says it does not seek to build a bomb and that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes.
Ahmadinejad's comments Monday suggested Iran could have another issue on which it seeks to pressure the Americans. Ahmadinejad raised several specific cases of Iranians he alleged are being held by the Americans.
"Recently an Iranian went to Mecca for pilgrimage and he was kidnapped by the American forces," he said. "And two years ago, an Iranian was also kidnapped by Americans in Turkey and their families are very much concerned about the fate of these people."
Last month, Iran accused the U.S. of involvement in the disappearance in June of an Iranian nuclear scientist on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Shahram Amiri reportedly worked at a university linked to the elite Revolutionary Guard military corps, and Iran has been increasingly vocal about complaining over his disappearance.
In early 2007, a former Iranian deputy defence minister, Ali Reza Asghari, disappeared while on a private trip to Turkey, and Iran's top police chief accused Western intelligence services of possibly kidnapping him.
Both cases have raised questions whether the two defected and gave the West information on Iran's nuclear program.
Iran is also holding another American, academic Kian Tajbakhsh, who was arrested for an alleged role in protests that broke out after the opposition charged that the June presidential election was fraudulent. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
A Canadian-Iranian reporter for Newsweek, Maziar Bahari, was a defendant in the same mass trial in the protests. Bahari was released on bail last month and joined his pregnant wife in London. Newsweek said she gave birth to a girl Oct. 26.
Keath reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Michelle Locke in Berkeley, Calif., contributed to this report.