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Oman ‘happy to receive’ U.S. hikers freed by Iran months after handing down eight-year jail terms

Two US hikers jailed for spying and illegal entry are due to arrive in Oman on Wednesday evening after Iran released them on bail, months after handing them hefty jail terms.

Oman has said it is “happy to receive” Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 29, who were driven to Tehran’s Mehrabad airport after their release from the capital’s notorious Evin prison and boarded a flight to the Gulf sultanate of Oman, which paid their bail, AFP reported.

“Oman is happy to receive the two American citizens and hopes this humanitarian initiative will be followed by other positive initiatives that would help achieve rapprochement between both the Americans and the Iranians ... to achieve stability in the region,” said a foreign ministry statement carried by Oman News Agency (ONA).

The men had been in custody for more than two years in a case that poisoned already difficult relations between Tehran and Washington, came as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly.

“Immediately after their release, the two American nationals left for Mehrabad airport,” the official IRNA news agency reported.

“The Swiss ambassador to Tehran and a delegation from Oman were present when the two American prisoners were released,” the report said.

“Moments ago they left Iran via Mehrabad airport and it seems that the two American nationals have left for Oman and from there to America,” the report added.

Fattal and Bauer were released into the custody of the Swiss embassy as Washington has no diplomatic relations with Tehran and its interests are looked after by the Swiss.

Oman, a U.S. Gulf ally which has good relations with Iran, agreed to pay the two men’s bail which was set at five billion rials ($400,000) each.

“Yes, the money for the bail was provided by Oman,” the two men’s lawyer Masoud Shafie said.

Oman paid bail of a similar amount for the release of a third U.S. hiker, Sarah Shourd, 32, last year.

Ahmadinejad, who first announced last week that Fattal and Bauer would be freed, reaffirmed in an interview released Tuesday that his country would free the two hikers despite delays.

“I did say within the next few days and I still say the same thing. And God willing they will be released very soon,” Ahmadinejad told U.S. network ABC, amid concern over the delays in their release.

Ahmadinejad told U.S. media last week that the pair, who have been held since being arrested near the mountainous border with Iraq on July 31, 2009, would be released imminently.

But the judiciary, dominated by ultra-conservatives, said later that no decision had yet been taken and that it was studying a bail application from the pair’s lawyer.

However, the release on bail of the two Americans, has already been approved by one judge, and Shafie had been told on Sunday to expect the second judge to return to work on Tuesday.

Bauer and Fattal were arrested along with Shourd near the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 and sentenced last month to eight years each in prison. Shourd, was freed last year in September after being granted bail on humanitarian and medical grounds.

Shourd’s bail had been set at $500,000 and was also paid through Oman.

On August 21, Bauer and Fattal were each sentenced to eight years in prison by a revolutionary court in Tehran on charges of espionage and illegal entry. They have appealed against the ruling.

All three have consistently maintained that they innocently strayed into Iran while hiking in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region.

Human rights group Amnesty International gave a cautious welcome to the two men’s release on bail.

“It is a welcome –if long overdue –step that the Iranian authorities have finally seen sense and released Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the London-based watchdog’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“They must now be allowed to leave Iran promptly to be reunited with their families,” she added.

The jailing of Bauer and Fattal sparked anger in Washington which already has deep differences with Tehran over its controversial nuclear program, its refusal to recognize Israel and its support for militant groups across the Middle East.

U.S. President Barack Obama regarded the jail terms handed down against the pair as “an abomination,” top White House diplomatic nominee Wendy Sherman told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this month.

Shourd, a teacher, writer and women’s rights activist, met Bauer, a fluent Arabic-speaking freelance journalist, while helping to organize demonstrations in the U.S. against the war in Iraq. The two moved to Damascus together in 2008.

Fattal, who grew up in Pennsylvania, is an environmentalist and teacher. He travelled in 2009 to Damascus, where he met Shourd and Bauer.