Spanish man on his way to the World Cup reported missing in Iran

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MADRID (AP) — A Spaniard documenting his ambitious journey on foot from Madrid to Doha for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has not been heard from since he crossed into Iran three weeks ago, his family said Monday, raised fears about his fate in a country convulsed by massive unrest.

Experienced hiker, former paratrooper and avid soccer fan Santiago Sanchez, 41, was last seen in Iraq after trekking through 15 countries and sharing his journey extensively on a popular Instagram account over the last nine months. But his exuberant posts abruptly ceased on October 1, the day he entered Iran from the country’s volatile northwestern border.

Sánchez’s family says their daily WhatsApp updates also stopped that day. Weeks later, they fear the worst.

“We are deeply concerned, we cannot stop crying, my husband and I,” his mother, Celia Cogedor, told The Associated Press.

Sánchez’s parents have reported him missing to the Spanish national police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

But Spanish authorities say they have no information on his whereabouts, adding that the Spanish ambassador in Tehran was handling the matter.

Calls to Iran’s Foreign Ministry seeking comment were not immediately returned on Monday.

The allegation of Sánchez’s disappearance in Iran, his last stop before arriving in Qatar for the World Cup, comes as protesters rise up across the Islamic Republic in the largest anti-government movement in more than a decade. Demonstrations erupted on September 16 over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman detained by Iran’s morality police for allegedly not adhering to the country’s strict Islamic dress code.

Tehran has violently cracked down and blamed foreign enemies and Kurdish groups in Iraq for fomenting the unrest, without offering evidence. The Iranian Intelligence Ministry said authorities arrested nine foreigners, mostly Europeans, for their suspected links to the protests last month. Westerners and dual nationals have increasingly become pawns in Iran’s infighting and tensions between Tehran and Western capitals, analysts say, with at least a dozen dual nationals arrested in Iran. recent years on disputed espionage charges.

Sánchez arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan in late September, after walking thousands of kilometers (miles) carrying a small suitcase on a wheeled cart, filled with little more than a tent, water purification tablets and a gas stove to burn. its 11 months on the road. He said he wanted to learn how others lived among themselves before arriving in Qatar, the first World Cup host country in the Arab world, in time for Spain’s first match on November 23.

“The idea of ​​the trip is to motivate and inspire other people to show that they can go very far with very little,” he told the AP from Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish city in northeastern Iraq. “You can go a long way walking.”

The day before he disappeared, Sánchez had breakfast with a guide in Sulaymaniyah. The guide, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said he tried to warn Sánchez about the dangerous political situation in Iran when they parted ways.

Protests in the Kurdish region of Iran after Amini’s death ignited nationwide unrest that still roils Iran. In response, Iranian forces have unleashed drone and artillery attacks. targeting Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq.

But Sánchez was not intimidated and confident, said the guide.

“He didn’t seem nervous at all. He told me, ‘I fixed everything, don’t worry,’” he said. They communicated through Google Translate, as Sánchez only speaks Spanish.

Sánchez, the guide added, planned to meet with an Iranian family in the Kurdish city of Marivan, the scene of recent anti-government protests. The family, delighted with Sánchez’s Instagram posts, reached out and offered to put him up.

After Sánchez crossed the border on Oct. 1, his messages became sparse and cryptic, the guide said. Sánchez told him that things were “very different” in Iran from Sulaymaniyah, the Iraqi metropolis full of parks and cafes.

“It’s been a long story,” his last message read.

Sánchez’s parents said he had warned them that he would temporarily lose internet access after arriving in Iran.

“The country is ‘hot’ and there are no communications,” Sánchez told his father in his last message on Oct. 1, possibly referring to the turmoil in Iran’s Kurdish region and the government’s disruption of Internet and mobile apps. popular communications used by protesters

His parents tried not to worry when their messages didn’t come through. But his worries grew as the weeks passed.

Spain’s Foreign Ministry said it had searched Sánchez’s border crossing into Iran and was not ruling out any possibility.

In her last Instagram update, the night before she crossed the Iranian border, she posted images of her emotional farewell from Iraq and spoke of the generosity of a Kurdish family. He had planned to camp on a mountain, but the owner of a nearby farm took him in, giving him a bed, a shower and a nice dinner.

Pictures on Instagram show him eating bread and chicken soup, smiling and posing with village youths, and drinking tea over a campfire.

“Conclusion,” he wrote, “Get lost to find yourself.”

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DeBre reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Salar Salim contributed from Irbil, Iraq.

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