NEW YORK (AP) - Two Americans released from an Iranian prison will return to U.S. soil Sunday after being held for more than two years as accused spies.
Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer were scheduled to return from the Mideast on Sunday afternoon, according to Samantha Topping, a spokeswoman for their families. She declined to publicly release details of their arrival. The two were released this week from custody and arrived in Oman under a $1 million bail deal.
Iran's Foreign Ministry called it a gesture of Islamic mercy.
Fattal and Bauer's return to the U.S. will be the end of lengthy ordeal that began in July 2009 when they were detained along the Iran-Iraq border, as was fellow hiker Sarah Shourd. The three always maintained their innocence, saying they were only hiking in Iraq's relatively peaceful Kurdish region and might have accidentally wandered into Iran.
A furious diplomatic effort led to the release of Shourd about a year ago, and negotiations continued for the two men. Last month, Fattal and Bauer were sentenced to eight years in prison each for illegal entry into Iran and espionage.
The first hint of change in the case came last week when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Fattal and Bauer could be released within days. But wrangling from within the country's leadership delayed efforts. Iranian defense attorney Masoud Shafiei secured the necessary judicial approval Wednesday for the bail - $500,000 for each man.
Hours later, the gates of Tehran's Evin prison opened and the Americans headed in a convoy with diplomats to Tehran's Mehrabad airport.
Until their release, the last previous direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal was in May 2010, when their mothers were permitted a short visit in Tehran, which Iranian officials used for high-profile propaganda.
Shourd, who had also been released on $500,000 bail last year, was with the families to greet the two on the tarmac at a royal airfield near the main international airport in Oman's capital, Muscat. At about 20 minutes before midnight Wednesday, Fattal and Bauer, wearing jeans and casual shirts, bounded down the steps from the blue-and-white plane. The men appeared very thin and pale, but in good health.
"We're so happy we are free," Fattal told reporters in a brief statement before leaving the airport.
"Two years in prison is too long," Bauer said, adding he hoped their release from prison will also bring "freedom for political prisoners in America and Iran."
Associated Press writer Doug Glass in Minneapolis contributed to this report.