Americans freed from Iran prison begin trek home

MUSCAT, Oman (AP) — After more than two years in Iranian custody, two Americans convicted as spies took their first steps toward home Wednesday as they bounded down from a private jet and into the arms of family for a joyful reunion in the Gulf state of Oman.

The families called this “the best day of our lives,” and President Barack Obama said their release — under a $1 million bail-for-freedom deal — “wonderful news.”

The release capped complicated diplomatic maneuvers over a week of confusing signals by Iran’s leadership on the fate of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer.

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US hikers Shane Bauer, right, and Josh Fattal, smile, at the Tehran’s Mehrabad airport before leaving Iran. Two Americans jailed in Iran as spies left Tehran on Wednesday, closing a high-profile drama with archfoe Washington that brought more than two years of hope then heartbreak for the families.

Although the fate of the two gripped America, it was on the periphery of the larger showdowns between Washington and Tehran that include Iran’s nuclear program and its ambitions to widen military and political influence in the Middle East and beyond. But — for a moment at least — U.S. officials may be adding words of thanks in addition to their calls for alarm over Iran.

For Tehran, it was a chance to court some goodwill after sending a message of defiance with hard-line justice in the July 2009 arrests of the Americans along the Iran-Iraq border. The Americans always maintained they were innocent hikers.

“Today can only be described as the best day of our lives,” said a statement from their families. “We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment and the joy and relief we feel at Shane and Josh’s long-awaited freedom knows no bounds.”

“We now all want nothing more than to wrap Shane and Josh in our arms, catch up on two lost years and make a new beginning, for them and for all of us,” the statement added.

Obama called it “wonderful, wonderful news about the hikers, we are thrilled ... It’s a wonderful day for them and for us.”

The families waited on the tarmac at a royal airfield near the main international airport in Oman’s capital, Muscat. Also returning to Oman was Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with Bauer and Fattal but freed a year ago. She received a marriage proposal from Bauer while in prison.

At about 20 minutes before midnight, Fattal and Bauer — wearing jeans and casual shirts — raced down the steps from the blue-and-white plane. They made no statements to reporters before walking into the airport terminal building, which was guarded by security officials. The men appeared thin, but in good health.

In many ways, the release was a mirror image of the scene last year when Shourd was freed on $500,000 bail. That deal, too, was mediated by Oman, an Arabian peninsula sultanate with close ties to both Tehran and Washington. A statement from Oman said it hoped the release would lead to better ties between Iran and the U.S.

The gray metal gates of Tehran’s Evin prison finally opened for Shourd — as it did for her companions on Wednesday — as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was preparing for the spotlight in New York at the U.N.’s annual gathering of world leaders last year. He is scheduled to address the world body again Thursday.

Just a month ago, Bauer and Fattal — both 29 — were appealing their eight-year prison terms for espionage and illegal entry into Iran. They denied the charges and said they were merely hikers in Iraq’s relatively peaceful Kurdistan region who wandered close to Iran’s border.

After several days of halting progress, their defense attorney secured the necessary judicial approval for the bail on Wednesday.

Hours later, the men were in a convoy with Swiss and Omani diplomats headed to Tehran’s aging Mehrabad airport — whose designers in the 1950s included the late American architect William Pereira. One of the last Tehran landmarks on the convoy’s route was the massive Azadi Square, which is used for military parades but also was a temporary hub for protesters after Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009.

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