Iran frees jailed US hiker 'spies' Bauer and Fattal

The hikers' release has been negotiated against a backdrop of tension between Washington and Tehran

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A pair of Americans convicted as spies and jailed in Iran for two years have been released and emotionally reunited with their loved ones.

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, were flown to Oman after being freed on bail from Evin prison.

They were sentenced in September to eight years in prison on charges of spying.

They were arrested in 2009 after crossing into Iran from Iraq, where they said they were hiking.

'Healthy and strong'

"We are so happy we are free and so relieved we are free," Mr Fattal said to reporters soon after their arrival on Wednesday in the Omani capital, Muscat.

Analysis

The release is as carefully choreographed as their colleague Sarah Shourd's a year ago. Once again Iran's president makes a magnanimous gesture shortly before appearing at the UN.

The question is whether the release of the hikers is designed to defuse tensions between Washington and Tehran. The roots of the antagonism go back beyond the Islamic revolution of 1979 to the coup of 1953 which deposed Iran's prime minister. The current distrust is focused on Iran's nuclear programme - peaceful, and not aimed at building an atomic bomb, insists Tehran, amid Western scepticism.

Washington's criticism of Iran's repression of protests is another flashpoint. Some Iran analysts say Tehran wants better relations after years of distrust, but others see the hikers' release as a chess move by President Ahmadinejad as he tries to shore up his internal political position.

Mr Bauer added: "Two years in prison is too long and we sincerely hope for the freedom of other political prisoners and other unjustly imprisoned people in America and Iran."

Also waiting on the tarmac was Sarah Shourd, 32, a third US hiker who was with Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal when they were arrested.

Ms Shourd became engaged to Mr Bauer while they were in prison, before she was freed last year on humanitarian grounds and returned home.

Soon after he was reunited with his son, Mr Fattal's father told reporters: "They are healthy, happy and strong."

Iran's judiciary reportedly set each bail at five billion rials ($500,000). Oman paid bail of a similar amount for the release of Ms Shourd last year.

The Gulf state of Oman is a US ally which has good relations with Iran.

'Strayed accidentally'

Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal were taken from the prison as part of a convoy of Iranian, Swiss and Omani cars.

Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal have always maintained they strayed into Iran accidentally while walking in the poorly marked border region.

Speaking before news of the hikers' release, Mr Ahmadinejad said it was a humanitarian gesture

The trio were arrested in July 2009 after travelling to the Kurdistan region of Iraq for a week's holiday.

They were held by Iranian troops who told them they were in Iranian territory.

Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal were convicted in September of espionage and illegal entry. Ms Shourd pleaded not guilty in absentia, but did not return to stand trial, citing ill health.

Earlier this month, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal would be released in days, but officials later denied any decision had been reached.

Their liberation came a day before Mr Ahmadinejad was expected in New York for a meeting of the UN General Assembly.

The case heightened tensions between the US and Iran.

US President Barack Obama said in a statement he was "very pleased" by their release.

"The tireless advocacy of their families over these two years has won my admiration, and is now coming to an end with Josh and Shane back in their arms," he added.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also welcomed the Iranian authorities' decision to free the men.

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