TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - The mothers of three Americans jailed in Iran for 10 months were returning home Friday without securing an immediate release for their children, witnesses said.
The mothers had more time with their children on Friday after an emotional reunion a day earlier in a Tehran hotel overlooking Evin prison, where the three have been held since their arrest in July along the Iran-Iraq border. But in the evening, they left the Estaghlal hotel and were driven to Tehran's international hotel to return home to the United States, the witnesses at the hotel said. Their children, Sarah Shourd, 31; Shane Bauer, 27; and Josh Fattal, 27, were taken by authorities back to Evin, the witnesses said.
The mothers arrived Wednesday and said they hoped their children would be allowed to return with them - or at least that they would be allowed to make an appeal for their freedom directly to Iranian leaders, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But so far, Iranian authorities have given no indication that the three could be freed, and the mothers are not known to have met any high-level officials.
One glimmer of hope came as state TV reported that the American military in Iraq has released two Iranians detained for entering Iraq without a passport.
The two - Ahmad Barazandeh and Ali Abdolmaleki - have been held for seven and two years, respectively, Iran's ambassador to Baghdad was quoted by the report as saying. Iraqi and U.S. officials in Baghdad could not immediately confirm the report. The TV report made no connection between the release and the case of the three Americans. But Iran has hinted in the past that it wants to swap the three Americans for Iranians being held by the United States.
On Thursday, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington, "We're 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.
There have been hints of such swaps in a past case. In 2009, U.S. forces in Iraq freed five Iranians who had been detained since 2007 on suspicion of aiding Shiite militants, and their release came several months after Iran freed an Iranian-American journalist, Roxana Saberi, who had been arrested in early 2009 and accused of espionage.
In another possible swap, Iran this month freed a 24-year-old French academic, Clotilde Reiss, arrested 10 months ago in connection to Iran's crackdown on postelection protests.
Just before her release, Paris allowed an Iranian detained in France on a U.S. warrant over suspicions of buying technology for Iran's military to return to his homeland. And soon after Reiss' release, France also freed an Iranian imprisoned for the 1991 assassination of a former Iranian prime minister.
Iran says Shourd, Bauer and Fattal were arrested after entering Iran illegally last July. Their relatives say the three were simply hiking in Iraq's scenic and largely peaceful mountainous northern Kurdish region and that if they did cross the border, it was accidental.
The three were brought Friday afternoon to the Estaghlal hotel and taken to the rooms where their mothers are staying for a private meeting, the witnesses at the hotel said. No cameras or media were allowed to cover the meeting, unlike an emotional reunion the day before at the hotel - their first since the arrests - when the three young Americans and their mothers embraced and sat together for nearly four hours.
The detention of the three Americans has become intertwined with Iran's accusations that the United States is unfairly holding a number of Iranians in custody. Since their arrest, Iran has been demanding the U.S. free a number of Iranians - including several who have been tried and sentenced in the United States for trying to arrange illegal sales to 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.
To underscore the connection, the mothers of the five Iranians released by the Americans in 2009 were brought to the hotel on Friday to meet with the Americans' mothers, Nora Shourd, Cindy Hickey and Laura Fattal. In the meeting, aired in part on state TV, the Iranian women pointedly said American officials never gave them the chance to see their loved ones while they were held in Iraq.
The women also claimed their sons were mistreated in U.S. custody. The Americans' fate could also be caught up in Iran's brinksmanship with the West over Tehran's disputed nuclear program and a U.S.-led push for harsher sanctions.
Just before the American mothers' arrival in Tehran, Washington said it had won support from other major powers for a new set of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran over its refusal to stop uranium enrichment. Iran granted the women visas to visit their children in what it called an "Islamic humanitarian gesture" and the Americans appealed to them to release the three on the same grounds.
At the trio's meeting with their mothers on Thursday, Josh Fattal told reporters, "We hope we're going home soon, maybe with our mothers."
The gathering gave reporters for the foreign media their first glimpse of the three Americans. They appeared healthy, wearing jeans and polo-style shirts. Sarah Shourd wore a maroon-colored head scarf. They described their routines behind bars and the small things that take on major significance: being allowed books, letters from home, the ability for some exercise and the one hour each day they are all together.
The last direct contact with their families was a five-minute phone call in March. Hickey lives in Minnesota, Shourd is from Oakland, California, and Fattal is from suburban Philadelphia.