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Iran Spy Chief Floats Prisoner Exchange For U.S. Hikers, Demands 'Human Rights Gesture'

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TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's intelligence minister on Sunday signaled that Tehran might be open to a prisoner swap with the U.S. for three Americans jailed in Iran since last July.

Sarah Shourd, 31, Shane Bauer, 27, and Josh Fattal, 27, were arrested along the Iraqi border 10 months ago. Iran has accused them of espionage and entering the country illegally; their families say the three were hiking in Iraq's largely peaceful mountainous northern Kurdish region and that if they crossed the border, it was accidental.

Last week, Iran allowed the trio's mothers to visit their children. The mothers were hoping to secure their children's' release, but returned to the United States on Saturday empty-handed. However, they say they were heartened to find their children are being treated well and in reasonable health.

On Sunday, Iranian Intelligence Minister Haidar Moslehi said the three Americans' "status as spies is a clear and obvious case," according to state TV.

But Moslehi said there would be a chance of discussing a prisoner exchange with the U.S. once Washington makes a humanitarian gesture toward Iranians in U.S. custody similar to the one Iran made last week toward the mothers.

"Our expectation is that the U.S., which has a claim on human rights issues, could make a similar human rights gesture to us, then we may get to the stage of whether or not there would be a swap," Moslehi said. He did not elaborate.

Iran has repeatedly accused the U.S. of abducting some 10 Iranians abroad and sentencing them to prison terms.

On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington that the U.S. is "not contemplating any kind of a prisoner swap" for the three Americans.

"But if Iran has questions about any of its citizens and whether we have any information as to their whereabouts, we would be more than happy to receive that diplomatic note and respond to it," he said.

Moslehi's comments on Sunday fall far short of the prisoner exchange that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed in March. That idea, however, failed to gain traction at the time.

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