Spanish man trekking to World Cup reported missing in Iran

MADRID (AP) — A Spanish man who documented his ambitious journey on foot from Madrid to Doha for the 2022 FIFA World Cup has not been heard from since he entered Iran three weeks ago, his family said Monday, sparking fears about his fate in a country ravaged by mass unrest.

The veteran trekker, former paratrooper and avid football fan, 41-year-old Santiago Sánchez, was last seen in Iraq after hiking through 15 countries and extensively sharing his journey on a popular Instagram account over the past nine months. But his lavish messages suddenly stopped on October 1, the day he entered Iran from the country’s unstable northwestern border.

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

“We are very 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 about his whereabouts, adding that the Spanish ambassador to Tehran was handling the matter.

Calls to Iran’s foreign ministry for comment were not immediately answered Monday.

Sánchez’s reported disappearance in Iran – his last stop before reaching Qatar for the World Cup – comes as protesters in the Islamic Republic rise in the largest anti-government movement in more than a decade. The demonstrations broke out on September 16 over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was taken into custody by Iran’s vice squad for allegedly breaking the country’s strict Islamic dress code.

Tehran has acted violently, blaming foreign enemies and Kurdish groups in Iraq for fueling the unrest, without providing evidence. Iran’s intelligence ministry said authorities arrested nine foreigners, mostly Europeans, last month for alleged links to the protests. Westerners and dual nationals have increasingly become pawns in Iran’s internal political struggle and in tensions between Tehran and Western capitals, analysts say, with at least a dozen dual nationals arrested in recent years on disputed charges. charges of espionage.

Sánchez arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan in late September after traveling thousands of kilometers (miles) with a small suitcase in a wheeled cart, packed with no more than a tent, water purification tablets and a gas stove for his 11 months on the road. He said he wanted to learn how others lived by living among them before reaching Qatar, the Arab world’s first host country for the World Cup, in time for Spain’s first game 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 walk a long way.”

The day before he disappeared, Sánchez had breakfast with a guide in Sulaymaniyah. The guide, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, said he was trying to warn Sánchez about the dangerous political situation in Iran when they broke up.

Protests in the Kurdish region of Iran after Amini’s death fueled the nationwide unrest that continues to rage in Iran. In response, Iranian forces have… unleashed drone and artillery strikes targeting Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq.

But Sánchez was fearless and confident, the guide said.

‘He didn’t look nervous at all. He told me, ‘I’ve arranged everything, don’t worry,’ he said. They communicated via Google Translate as Sánchez only speaks Spanish.

Sánchez, the guide added, was planning to meet an Iranian family in the Kurdish city of Marivan — a scene of recent anti-government protests. The family, delighted with Cogedor’s Instagram posts, had contacted him and offered to receive him.

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 than in Sulaymaniyah, the Iraqi metropolis full of parks and cafes.

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

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

“The country is ‘hot’ and there is no communication,” Sánchez told his father in his last message on Oct. 1, possibly a reference to the unrest in the Kurdish region of Iran and the government’s disruption of the Internet and popular communications applications that used by protesters.

His parents tried not to worry if their messages weren’t delivered. But their concerns increased as the weeks passed.

The Spanish foreign ministry said it had registered the border crossing from Sánchez to Iran and did not rule out any possibilities.

In his latest Instagram update, the night before he crossed the Iranian border, he posted images of his emotional farewell to Iraq and talked about the generosity of a Kurdish family. He planned to camp on a mountain, but the owner of a nearby farm took him in and gave him a bed, a shower and a hearty dinner.

Pictures on Instagram show him eating bread and chicken soup, laughing and posing with young boys from the village and drinking tea over an open fire.

“Conclusion:,” he wrote, “Lose yourself to find yourself.”

____

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

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