Middle East

Mothers of Jailed American Hikers in Iran Return Back to U.S.

May 21: Nora Shourd, right, mother of Sarah Shourd, Cindy Hickey, center, mother of Shane Bauer, and Laura Fattal, mother of Josh Fattal, back to camera at left, whose children are in jail in Iran, arrive at the Imam Khomeini airport outside Tehran, to leave Iran.

May 21: Nora Shourd, right, mother of Sarah Shourd, Cindy Hickey, center, mother of Shane Bauer, and Laura Fattal, mother of Josh Fattal, back to camera at left, whose children are in jail in Iran, arrive at the Imam Khomeini airport outside Tehran, to leave Iran.  (AP)

NEW YORK -- The mothers of three Americans jailed in Iran returned to New York empty-handed Saturday, with one of the women saying that leaving their children behind was almost more than they could bear.

At a brief news conference at John F. Kennedy International Airport shortly after they returned to the U.S., Nora Shourd thanked the Iranians for allowing the women to see the three and said they were disappointed they could not return with their children.

"The pain is almost more than we can bear," Shourd said.

Cindy Hickey said the women were "exhausted (from the trip) and too overwhelmed by the emotion."

"We will forever savor the precious moments we were able to spend with our children," she said.

Shourd and Hickey left the airport terminal holding hands in support of each other, while the third woman, Laura Fattal, walked arm-in-arm with her son.

The women had a "very emotional goodbye" to the children they had to leave behind in Tehran, Fattal's son told The Associated Press.

"They're managing to cope with an extremely difficult situation," said Alex Fattal.

The detained Americans -- Sarah Shourd, 31; her boyfriend, Shane Bauer, 27; and their friend Josh Fattal, 27 -- have been held in Iran since July, when they were arrested along the Iraqi border. Iran has accused them of espionage; their families say that the three were hiking in Iraq's largely peaceful mountainous northern Kurdish region and that if they crossed the border, it was accidental.

The mothers -- Shourd, of Oakland, California; Hickey, of Pine City, Minnesota; and Fattal, of suburban Philadelphia -- returned on a flight from Dubai Saturday afternoon.

Alex Fattal said about a dozen family members around the country -- in California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Colorado -- had a half-hour conference call with the mothers on Friday after they arrived in Dubai from Tehran.

The women told family members they had spent a total of about 10 hours with their children over two days in Iran but failed to secure their release, said Alex Fattal, who is on leave from a doctoral program in anthropology at Harvard University so he can help gain the Americans' release.

"They have mixed feelings," he said. Friday, the day they left Tehran, "was a tremendously emotional day for them and for us; it was very difficult for them to leave, an extremely difficult departure after a very emotional goodbye."

The mothers had hoped to at least make a face-to-face appeal for their children's release to Iranian leaders.

The Swiss ambassador in Iran told AP Television News there were no negotiations with Iranian officials to free their children. Washington and Tehran broke off diplomatic relations following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and Switzerland handles U.S. interests in Iran.

"The point was that they should see their children. They have seen them quite a lot over the last two days," Ambassador Livia Leu Agosti said late Friday in an interview at the Tehran airport after the mothers left the country. "It was a visit to the children. That was the purpose."

Asked whether there were any positive signs from Iranian authorities, Agosti told APTN: "Well, they were very generous in the time that they allotted the mothers to be with their children. So it was a good gesture."

Iran announced Friday that two of its nationals held in Iraq by U.S. forces for years were freed, raising the possibility that a behind-the-scenes swap was in the offing or that their release was a gesture of goodwill in an attempt to free the Americans.

The Iranians' release "may have some diplomatic effect on this case," the Americans' lawyer, Masoud Shafii, told the AP.

The U.S. has said it is not offering a direct swap, and Iranian officials made no public connection between the freed Iranians and the Americans.

Their detention has become entangled in the confrontation between the United States and Iran. Iranian leaders have repeatedly suggested a link between their jailing and that of a number of Iranians by the United States whose release Tehran demands. Further increasing tensions, the U.S. announced before the mothers' arrival in Tehran that it had support from other major powers for a new set of U.N. sanctions against Iran over its refusal to stop uranium enrichment.

Iran has said it allowed the mothers to visit the Americans as a humanitarian gesture, and state TV gave heavy coverage to the mother's first reunion with their children Thursday at the high-rise Estaghlal hotel near Evin prison, where the Americans were being held. They embraced, kissed and cried, then sat for a lavish meal in the hotel restaurant. It was the first public look at the three young Americans since their detention.

Josh Fattal told reporters, "We hope we're going home soon, maybe with our mothers."

But that didn't happen.

"Generally, we continue to hold out hope," Alex Fattal told the AP. "We know our loved ones are innocent, and we hope the Iranian authorities will recognize that."

The three appeared healthy in TV coverage, wearing jeans and polo-style shirts. Sarah Shourd wore a maroon head scarf. They described their routines behind bars and being allowed books, letters from home, the ability to exercise and the one hour each day they are all together.

The three Americans were taken back to Evin after the meeting, witnesses at the hotel told AP.

They are all graduates of the University of California at Berkeley. The last direct contact with their families had been a five-minute phone call in March.

Iran has hinted in the past that it wants to swap the three Americans for a number Iranians being held by the United States -- including several who have been tried and convicted in the United States over violations of American sanctions on Iran. Also among them is a nuclear scientist, Shahram Amiri, who disappeared during a visit last year to Saudi Arabia, raising speculation he defected to the West.