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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is urging Iran to show compassion and release three Americans held since July for apparently crossing into Iranian territory while hiking in Northern Iraq. Iran says the three are being charged with espionage.
Clinton met with families of the three Americans last week in action that raised the profile of the case. But her reaction Monday to word they are being charged with spying was relatively low-key, with the Secretary telling reporters the charges are without merit and that Iran should free the Americans - two men and a woman - on humanitarian grounds.
"We believe strongly that there is no evidence to support any charge whatsoever and we would renew our request on behalf of these three young people and their families that the Iranian government exercise compassion and release them, so they can return home," said Clinton. "And we will continue to make that case through our Swiss protecting power who represents the United States in Tehran," she said.
Iranian authorities have allowed Swiss diplomats to make only two consular visits to the detained Americans, the first in September and the second last week.
The three - Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal, had been hiking in the rugged Kurdish region of northern Iraq and their families say they strayed across the border accidentally.
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Clinton addressed the charges at a joint press event here with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who expressed his government's "solidarity" with the three Americans and their families.
The Secretary also discussed Iran's nuclear program in separate meetings with Westerwelle and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
She urged the Tehran government to give a definitive answer to an offer by major powers to further process Iranian enriched uranium outside that country to resupply a Tehran reactor, running low on fuel, that produces isotopes for medical purposes.
"We believe that this offer represents an important opportunity for Iran, both to meet to meet the medical and humanitarian needs that the Tehran research reactor fulfills, and to begin to restore international confidence in their nuclear program," she said.
Iran has sent mixed signals about its response to the plan, under which much of the low-enriched uranium Iran has produced in its controversial enrichment program would be shipped abroad for processing, a step that would ease Western concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions.
Clinton said in the absence of an Iranian reply, it is premature to talk about what may happen if Tehran ultimately rejects the offer.
But she noted that the United States and its partners in the P-Five-Plus-One group - the five permanent U.N. Security Council member countries and Germany - are pursuing a two-track strategy of incentives for Iranian nuclear cooperation and "consequences" if it fails to fulfill international nuclear obligations.