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Swedes meet detained US journalists in North Korea

Published: 17 May 2009 10:09 GMT+02:00
Updated: 17 May 2009 10:09 GMT+02:00

The Swedish ambassador to North Korea met two detained US journalists on Friday, the first such contact in six weeks, a senior US official said.

The development came a day after North Korea on Thursday set a June 4th trial date for the two journalists, Euna Lee, a Korean-American, and Laura Ling, a Chinese-American.

Sweden represents US interests in North Korea and has been working to secure the release of the two US journalists since they were seized in a dawn raid in the outskirts of Pyongyang on March 17th.

"The Swedish ambassador to North Korea, acting as the United States' protecting power, met with each of the two detained American citizen journalists on May 15," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said without giving details of their condition.

Ian Kelly confirmed that this was the second meeting between the Swedish ambassador, Mats Foyer, and the journalists with a previous meeting on March 30th.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to reporters on Thursday, considers the June 4th trial date for the journalists as a positive sign.

"We believe that the charges are baseless and should not have been brought and these two young women should be released immediately," she said.

"But the fact that they are now going to have some process we believe is a signal that there can be and I hope will be a resolution as soon as possible," the chief US diplomat said.

The North Koreans have given no details of the charges against the two women who

were detained on March 17th along the narrow Tumen River which marks the border with China.

The North has previously said they would go on trial for "hostile acts" and illegally entering the country. Their trial would be held "on the basis of the confirmed crimes committed by them," it has announced.

The two women were working on a story about refugees fleeing the hardline communist North.

International rights and media freedom groups as well as Western politicians have urged Pyongyang to release the reporters, who are employed by Current TV in

California.

Reporters Without Borders has said the women face up to 10 years of forced labour if convicted of "hostile acts."

Analysts said Pyongyang is using the pair as a bargaining chip to open direct talks with Washington, which has participated in six-country negotiations aimed at scrapping North Korea's nuclear programs.

The analysts add that Pyongyang may be following the lead set by Tehran.

US-born reporter Roxana Saberi walked free from an Iranian jail on Monday after a court reduced her prison term for spying to a two-year suspended sentence, from the original eight years.

The case of the two journalists coincides with growing tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, after North Korea fired a long-range rocket on April 5th in what it called a satellite launch.

The United States and other nations say it staged a disguised missile test.

The United Nations condemned the launch and tightened existing sanctions, prompting the North to quit the nuclear disarmament talks and announce it was restarting a program to make weapons-grade plutonium.

It is threatening another nuclear test, following its first one in October 2006, unless the world body apologizes.

AFP/The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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