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US hikers will stand trial for espionage, says Iran

Students who crossed border 'by mistake' could be pawns in nuclear game

Iran's judiciary indicated yesterday that three young American trekkers who apparently blundered into Iran from neighbouring Iraq in July and who have been in custody since are to be tried for espionage.

The announcement came as efforts by the international community to nudge Iran into a truce over the future of its nuclear industry by agreeing to export its stock of low-enriched uranium for additional processing in third countries looks in danger of collapsing. After weeks of anxiety about the three Americans, graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, state radio in Tehran last night quoted the chief prosecutor Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi, saying they "have been accused of espionage" and that a formal "opinion will be given in the not distant future". That could mean that charges have been filed, or will be soon.

The families of the three insist that if they did indeed stray across the border it was only by accident. The news prompted a sharp reaction from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who was in Berlin yesterday for the Berlin Wall celebrations and demanded that the group be freed immediately. Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal were arrested on the Iran-Iraq border on 31 July. "We believe strongly that there is no evidence to support any charge whatsoever," Mrs Clinton said. "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."

Mrs Clinton also described the proffered nuclear deal as "an important opportunity for Iran".

The drama sparked speculation that Iran may seek to use the young Americans as bargaining chips with the United States in the nuclear negotiations. Iran may now have only until the end of this week to sign up to a deal it theoretically agreed to in Geneva last month but from which it has been steadily retreating in recent days. Failing a nod from Tehran, work is likely to begin on crafting new international sanctions at the United Nations in New York. Russia last week hinted it was ready to support sanctions.

The three young Americans were on a trip that began in western Turkey and took them into Kurdish Iraq and a resort region of caves and waterfalls that abuts the frontier with Iran. A statement on a web site set up on their behalf, freethehikers.org, pleaded yesterday for their quick release. "We hope the Iranian authorities understand that if our children and friends did happen to enter Iran, there can only be one reason: because they made a regrettable mistake," it said.

Hopes for their early release rose briefly in September when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in an interview that he would "ask the judiciary to expedite the process and give it its full attention, and to... look at the case with maximum leniency."