Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi said on Tuesday that authorities were "seriously" working to secure the release of three tourists, two German and one Irish, kidnapped in the country's lawless Bluchistan va Sistan province.
A provincial security official in the provincial capital Zahedan Zahedan told a newspaper that an Iranian guide had probably been snatched along with the travellers.
Officials said the three tourists were cycling near Nosrat Abad, on the road between the ancient cities of Bam and Zahedan when they were kidnapped late last week by bandits.
A ransom of £5 million ($6 million) has been set for their release, said Iranian officials.
The area, near the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan, is notorious as a corridor for the smuggling of heroin, opium and cannabis. Iranian security forces maintain a strong presence there, with armed clashes between troops and traffickers often reported.
“The province's security institutions have started serious efforts to track down the abductors and release the hostages”
provincial security chief
The area attracts a small number of backpackers, generally crossing overland into Pakistan.
“The province's security institutions have started serious efforts to track down the abductors and release the hostages,” Gholamreza Javdan, a provincial security chief, was quoted by the state IRNA news agency as saying.
Sharq newspaper reported the regional heads of Iran's police and military forces held an emergency meeting in Zahedan. The newspaper also quoted a provincial security official who believed the tourists had fallen into the hands of a notorious bandit, "Shirouk".
Etemad newspaper quoted an official who said the kidnappers could demand the freeing of prisoners from their gang in return for the tourists.
The Irish and German embassies in Tehran declined to comment on the case, but the German Foreign Ministry has set up a crisis team.
Kidnapping of Westerners is rare in Iran, which has been trying to promote itself as a tourist destination in recent years.
There was a spate of kidnappings in Iran in 1999 when drug traffickers seized 10 Europeans in three separate incidents.
The hostages were freed unharmed, and three of the convicted kidnappers were executed at public hangings in 2001.
Rumours Germany paid ransoms for the release of some of its citizens have led to speculation that German tourists may be seen as lucrative targets for would-be hostage-takers.