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Hikers' friend says they crossed into Iran by mistake

  • Story Highlights
  • Shon Meckfessel says he stayed behind because he was catching cold
  • "Kurdish territory is actually very beautiful and quite safe," he says
  • Meckfessel says hikers weren't warned they were heading near Iran
  • He says if friends knew they were near border, "they would have never continued"
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(CNN) -- A friend of three American hikers arrested in Iran said he believes they had no knowledge they were nearing the Iranian border while hiking in Iraq, and made "a simple and regrettable mistake."

Ahmed Awa, on the border of Iraq and Iran, was recommended to the hikers, their friend says.

Shane Bauer is one of three American hikers taken into custody in Iran.

Shon Meckfessel was with the three on a hiking trip to Iraqi Kurdistan, but had stayed behind at their hotel on July 31, the day the three went missing, because he had a cold. He issued a statement to media outlets on Thursday and confirmed its authenticity to CNN.

"I'm writing this statement to help people understand what happened to my three friends, Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal, who went missing by the Iran/Iraq border," said the statement.

He said the four traveled from Damascus, Syria, to the Kurdistan region of Iraq "for a short vacation. ... While going there might seem strange to Americans, the Kurdish territory is actually very beautiful and quite safe. Since the Kurds gained autonomy in 1992, no American has ever been harmed there."

The four arrived in the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniya on July 29, Meckfessel said. They asked a number of locals for good places to experience the mountains in the area and "every one of them told us to visit a place called Ahmed Awa," he wrote. "Not one of these people mentioned that Ahmed Awa was anywhere near the Iranian border." However, he said, it may have been unclear to the locals that the four planned to hike in the area instead of visit a waterfall located there.

Ahmed Awa was not on the map the group had, he said, but he thought it was northwest of the city. "On the evening of July 30, Josh, Shane and Sarah set out for Ahmed Awa with the plan to camp out. I stayed behind at our hotel because I was coming down with a cold and wanted a night to recuperate." He said he planned to meet the others near Ahmed Awa, and he bought an Iraqi SIM card for his cell phone to make sure he could find them.

Meckfessel said he spoke with Bauer twice that night, and Bauer told him the group had been dropped off near some restaurants in Ahmed Awa, and later that they had visited the waterfall "and were continuing on the same trail to camp in peace."

On July 31, he woke up feeling better and decided to join his friends. When he called, Bauer told him the group had awakened early and continued hiking on the same trial.

"Shane sounded very calm and content, happy to be in a beautiful environment, and made absolutely no mention of the risk whatsoever," Meckfessel wrote. "I am absolutely certain that they had no knowledge of their proximity to the Iranian border or they would have never continued in that direction. Shane told me they were planning to turn around soon. He thought we could meet up near the waterfall."

He said he sent Bauer two text messages that afternoon, but received no response. A few minutes after he sent the second, Meckfessel said Bauer called him and told him "they were being taken into custody and that I should call the embassy."

"I hope that people understand my friends' presence in the area for what it was: a simple and very regrettable mistake," Meckfessel wrote.

On Tuesday, Iran confirmed the arrest of the three Americans, saying they were charged with "illegal entry," according to the nation's semiofficial Fars News Agency. Iraj Hassanzadeh, the deputy governor of Iran's Kurdistan province, told Fars the three were arrested in the western Iranian city of Marivan. They apparently crossed the unmarked border with Iran.

Officials at the Swiss Embassy -- which represents the U.S. interests in Iran because Washington and Tehran do not have formal relations -- said earlier this week they had spoken to Iranian officials. The Swiss ambassador was expected to seek consular access to the Americans.

The three are former students at the University of California-Berkeley, the university confirmed.

"I have been close friends with Shane and Sarah for years," Meckfessel said in the statement, "and recently met Josh, a longtime friend of Shane. Shane is a language student and freelance journalist; Sarah is an English teacher and Josh arranges student exchange trips. All of us have done some writing about our travels, and all of us share a deep appreciation for Middle East cultures."

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