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Talks at standstill with Iran kidnappers to release tourists: report

TEHRAN, Aug 24 (AFP) - Iranian kidnappers holding four Western tourists and their guide hostage have allowed one of their ailing captives to get medicine but talks to free the five men are at a standstill, newspapers said Tuesday.

Joaquin Fernandez, a 70-year-old Spanish priest, has received a delivery of heart medicine from the Spanish embassy via a liaison to the kidnappers from Iran's interior ministry, papers said.

Mohammad-Ali Karimi, a security official from the southern province of Kerman where the men were taken hostage ten days ago, told the press that Fernandez and the other four were "doing fine."

But talks to free the men have reached an impasse after the kidnappers presented a list of demands during talks with interior ministry officials, the conservative Abrar daily reported.

Karimi said the affair had been referred to Iran's intelligence ministry, which he said knows the southeastern Iranian tribe holding the men "very well."

The Shah-Bakhsh, one of two tribes which control the major drug-trafficking area in southeastern Iran along the Pakistani border, reportedly want to exchange the hostages for two arrested colleagues, Ghader Shah-Bakhsh and Hossein Khassi-Farahani.

The two were arrested during a clash with security forces in the region last month that left five other tribesmen dead, and press reports said the kidnappers are also demanding the return of their bodies.

Three men and two women armed with automatic weapons kidnapped the tourists August 14 from their hotel in the southern city of Kerman.

In addition to Fernandez the captives have been identified as 57-year-old Cosme Puerto, also a Spanish priest, as well as Spaniard Pedro Garcia, a computer technician, civil engineer Massimo Cattabriga from Italy, 37, and their Iranian tour guide Rahmatollah Soleimani.

Iranian security forces said Thursday they had formed a "security triangle" in the southeast to close off the area and prevent the tribesmen from getting away with the hostages.

Meanwhile Karimi warned the government could take action against the conservative Entekhab newspaper after it published a series of contradictory stories in recent days on progress in talks to free the hostages.

He said Entekhab's reports had "seriously hampered efforts to free the hostages," adding that the publication of false information about the negotiations could leave the paper facing charges in court.

"Security forces as well as the interior ministry will launch an investigation into the paper's reports, which have sometimes been accurate but at other times erroneous," he said without elaborating.

The daily reported on Saturday that police forces had reached "certain agreements" after some 150 hours of negotiations with the kidnappers and that the five could be released later that day.

When the men had not been released on Sunday the paper said that the kidnappers had presented a "new" list of demands to Iranian officials.

Entekhab then said Monday that the hostages could be released later in the day.

But Spain's charge d'affaires in Tehran told Madrid's Europa press agency on Monday that reports of an imminent agreement to free the men were unfounded.

"We are in the middle of a delicate process and I don't want to give the impressions that we are close to an agreement," he said.


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