Iran arrests US woman carrying 'spy device'

Iranian authorities have detained a 55-year-old American woman on spying charges, local media reported yesterday.

The state-owned newspaper Iran said the woman had spying equipment hidden on her body when customs authorities arrested her in the border town of Nordouz, 370 miles north-west of the capital, Tehran. The report said she had arrived in Iran from neighbouring Armenia without a visa.

The paper identified the woman in Farsi as Hal Talaian and said she was found to have "a microphone" between her teeth. It did not say when she was detained.

But Iran's semi-official Fars news agency quoted an unnamed official as saying the woman was taken into custody "about one week ago".

Armenian authorities had no immediate comment on the reported arrest. The US Embassy in Armenia's capital, Yerevan, was closed for the Orthodox Christmas and officials could not be reached.

If the woman's arrest is confirmed, she would be the fourth American Iran has arrested and accused of spying in less than two years.

In July 2009, Tehran held three Americans whom it initially accused of crossing the border illegally from northern Iraq and later accused of spying.

The US has dismissed the spying charges. It says the three are innocent hikers and has repeatedly called for their release. The Americans' families have said that if they had crossed the border, they would have done so inadvertently.

One of the three, Sarah Shourd, was released in September on compassionate grounds on $500,000 bail. Her fiancé, Shane Bauer, and friend Josh Fattal remain in prison and could go on trial next month.

Iran has suggested that the Americans in its custody could be traded for Iranians held in the US, raising concerns that the Americans are to be used as bargaining chips as the two countries face off over issues like Iran's disputed nuclear programme.

The US and its allies fear Iran aims to develop atomic weapons. Tehran denies the allegations, and says its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes.

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