Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 31, and Josh Fattal, 27, have been held in Iran for 53 days after apparently straying into the country while hiking in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region in late July. Since then, their families have had no information other than that the three were being detained somewhere in Iran.
In a joint statement, the families said that Ahmadinejad's "expression of compassion raises our hopes that the day they return to us will not be far off."
"Our immediate concern now is to know that our children are well," said the statement from the families, who have been keeping in daily contact with each other. "We hope the Iranian authorities will allow our children to speak to us without delay and grant them their right to consular access."
The arrest of the Americans has been the latest source of friction between the U.S. and Iran. The night before his U.N. speech, Ahmadinejad told the AP the hikers broke the law by entering Iran but that he'd seek leniency nonetheless.
"What I can ask is that the judiciary expedites the process and gives it its full attention, and to basically look at the case with maximum leniency," Ahmadinejad said .
"The judiciary has its own procedures to follow, but I'm hopeful," he said, but did not elaborate.
In an interview Tuesday at her home in Pine City, Minn., Bauer's mother, Cindy Hickey, had expressed optimism that Ahmadinejad's visit would bring good news about her son and his two friends, all of whom are graduates of the University of California, Berkeley. Several other family members echoed her hopes.
Ahmadinejad's comments about the case of the hikers also sparked hope for the wife of another American missing in Iran for two-and-a-half years. In early 2007, former FBI agent Robert Levinson went missing while working as a private consultant. His wife, Christine Levinson, said he was investigating cigarette smuggling and was last seen on Iran's Kish Island.
Christine Levinson, of Coral Springs, Fla., traveled to New York on Wednesday seeking a meeting with Ahmadinejad - as she's done unsuccessfully each of the last two years when he visited the United Nations.
"Bob has seven children and two grandchildren, one he doesn't even know about," Christine Levinson said. "The Iranian government has shown they are willing to help on other cases. I'm hoping they're willing to help me on this one."