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Thu 22 Sep 2011 11:33 AM

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US hikers fly to Oman after 2-yr stint in Iran jail

‘We’re so happy we’re free,’ Josh Fattal tells reporters at Muscat airport

US hikers fly to Oman after 2-yr stint in Iran jail
US citizens Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal spent two years in an Iran jail on charges of espionage

Two US nationals held in Iran on charges of espionage and
illegal entry were freed yesterday from prison and arrived in Oman, where they
were met by family members who had worked for their release for more than two
years.

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were released from Evin prison
and handed over to the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. The Swiss mission represents
the interests of the US, which doesn’t have diplomatic ties with Iran. State
television broadcast images of the plane that brought the two men to the Gulf
state and their arrival at the airport.

“We’re so happy we’re free,” Fattal, dressed in a blue
shirt, was shown telling reporters at the Muscat airport.

News of the men’s freedom was announced yesterday by Iranian
state media shortly before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in New
York for the United Nations General Assembly, where world leaders gather each
year.

US President Barack Obama, in a statement, welcomed their
release and thanked Omani leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, Iraqi
President Jalal Talabani, the Swiss government, and others who joined in
efforts on behalf of the two men.

“All Americans join their families and friends in
celebrating their long-awaited return home,” Obama said.

The two Americans were released after an Iranian judge
signed documents approving the payment of $500,000 each on their behalf,
according to Massoud Shafiei, their lawyer, who said in a telephone interview
yesterday that Oman had arranged for the money.

Bauer and Fattal, both 29, have said that they were hiking
in Iraq in July 2009 and mistakenly wandered across the border. The US has
repeatedly called for their release. Their prolonged detention has added to
tensions between Iran and the US and highlighted friction among Iran’s ruling
elite.

Video of Swiss and Omani diplomats waiting in cars near the
prison was broadcast by the state-run Press TV news channel yesterday. Oman
also acted as a facilitator last year by organizing the payment for the release
of Sarah Shourd, another US citizen who was hiking with Bauer and Fattal and
also was arrested.

Shourd, who became engaged to Bauer while both were in jail,
was released in September 2010 on $500,000 bail. She left for the US
immediately via Oman and didn’t return to Iran to stand trial. The men were
sentenced by the Revolutionary Court on Aug. 21 to eight years in prison.

Shourd joined Bauer’s parents and sisters and Fattal’s
parents and brother in Muscat, Oman’s capital.

“We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment and the
joy and relief at Shane and Josh’s long-awaited freedom knows no bounds,” the
families said in a statement.

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Retired US Ambassador William G. Miller was among the
individuals and groups who worked to arrange the high-level meetings that led
to the Americans’ release through Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based
organization that focuses on conflict resolution.

The timing of Bauer’s and Fattal’s release “may very well
have something to do with the timing of Ahmadinejad’s presence in New York,”
said Miller, who served in Iran for five years and was ambassador to the
Ukraine.

 “This is a signal
from the Iranians that they’re interested in talking,” Miller said in a
telephone interview. After 32 years of mutual isolation, he said, the Iranian
move is important.

“It’s a good gesture and compassionate gesture,” he said.

The release process was complicated by internal conflicts
between the Iranian president and other political bodies, with officials making
contradictory remarks.

Ahmadinejad told NBC News in an interview broadcast on Sept.
13 that he was arranging for Fattal and Bauer to be released “in a couple of
days” on humanitarian grounds. The following day, Iran’s judiciary said that
their release wasn’t “imminent” and that legitimate information on the matter
would only come from the judiciary.

Prior to their detention, Shourd and Bauer had lived
together in Syria’s capital, Damascus, where she learned Arabic and taught
English, according to freethehikers.org, a website set up to help gain their
freedom. Fattal is an environmentalist who was visiting Damascus before the
three headed to Iraq, according to the website.

Bauer is a Minnesota native, Fattal is from Pennsylvania and
Shourd is from California.

In 2007, Iran sparked a crisis when it seized 15 UK sailors
and marines it accused of trespassing in Iranian waters and held them for two
weeks.

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