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Iran denies plans to use force to free Portuguese hostages

TEHRAN, Oct 4 (AFP) - Iran's interior ministry on Monday denied reports it planned to use force to free three Portuguese nationals kidnapped a week ago as efforts to secure their release remain shrouded in uncertainty.

"The interior ministry vehemently denies such reports," spokesman Abolreza Bandi said, after Sunday's Tehran Times quoted a ministry official saying Iran would resort to force to free the hostages.

But Bandi refused to go into further detail about the security forces' plans until the "final results" were available.

Iranian officials and the Portuguese embassy in Tehran have also kept tight-lipped about their efforts to end the kidnapping, although a Western source told AFP Thursday that talks were underway.

The Tehran Times cited an unnamed ministry official who said the government "will use force to teach a lesson to the drug traffickers who must stop this sort of blackmailing."

The official added that security services were determined not to give in to the kidnappers' demands for the release of a fellow tribesman who was arrested for drug trafficking the day before last Monday's abduction.

According to the paper, the kidnapping -- the third in the region in less than four months -- was carried out by a tribe known to be involved in drug trafficking in the Pakistani border region.

During the kidnappings in June and August -- reportedly also staged by drug smugglers -- no information on the circumstances of the hostages' release were given, but press reports claimed Iranian officials had agreed to exchange the hostages for detained colleagues of the drug smugglers.

But just one day after last Monday's kidnapping, Iran's press strongly warned against creating any precedent that might encourage further abductions of Westerners in the future, which has already created an "embarrassing situation" for the Iranian government.

Negotiating with drug smugglers might lead them to adopt "a new way of making enormous profits" by trading hostages for money or the release of imprisoned colleagues, the English-language Iran News said.

The three men, Ricardo Andreia, 46, Jorge Duarte, 40, and Juan Mendes Pinto, 43, were abducted on September 27 near the city of Zahedan close to the Pakistani border.

They are members of a seven-man television crew from a private Portuguese channel who were following a car rally from Lisbon to Macau to commemorate the territory's return to Chinese control in December.

The other four crew members, including three women -- one of whom is the wife of one of the captives -- were immediately freed.

According to Western sources, the four are still in a hotel in Zahedan, anxiously waiting for the release of their colleagues. In August, three Spaniards, one Italian and one Iranian were abducted by drug smugglers at gunpoint from their hotel in southeastern Iran.

The captors, who reportedly belonged to Iran's southeastern Shah-Bakhsh tribe, were said to be demanding the release of their colleagues arrested in a July shootout between security forces and drug traffickers in Kerman province.

In June, three Italians working in southeastern Iran were taken hostage under similar circumstances, but were released a week later following "negotiations" with the captors.

Iran's southeastern region is a known transshipment point for narcotics coming from neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan on their way to markets in Europe and the Gulf.


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