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Americans held in Iran prison released

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) - 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 as the Islamic Republic's hard-line rulers
rejected international calls for their release.
Iran's state news agency IRNA said Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal
left Iran just as darkness fell in the capital. An Omani official
told The Associated Press the men were flying to the capital,
Muscat. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not
authorized to speak to the media. He did not say how long the two
men will stay in the Gulf state before heading home to America.
The case of Bauer and Fattal, who were convicted by an Iranian
court of spying for the United States, has deepened strains in the
already fraught relationship between Washington and Tehran. Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was first to mention last week
that the Americans' could be released, is in the United States and
is scheduled to speak at the United Nations General Assembly on
Thursday.
The release came just minutes before President Barack Obama
addressed the U.N. General Assembly. There was no direct evidence
that Iran timed the American's freedom to overshadow Obama's
speech, but Iran has conducted international political stagecraft
in the past.
Most famously, Iran waited until just moments after Ronald
Reagan's presidential inauguration in January 1981 to free 52
American hostages held for 444 days at the former U.S. Embassy
after it was stormed by militants backing Iran's Islamic
Revolution. The timing was seen as a way to embarrass ex-President
Jimmy Carter for his backing of Iran's former monarch.
Associated Press reporters saw a convoy of vehicles with Swiss
and Omani diplomats leaving Evin prison on Wednesday afternoon with Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal inside, heading to Tehran's Mehrabad airport.
Switzerland represents American interests in Iran because the
U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Tehran and the prisoners are
expected to be flown to Oman now.
The two men, both 29, were driven out of the prison compound
just minutes after their Iranian attorney, Masoud Shafiei, said he
has completed the paperwork for their release.
"I have finished the job that I had to do as their lawyer,"
Shafiei said. He obtained signatures of two judges on a
bail-for-freedom deal. A $1 million bail - $500,000 for each one -
was posted.
Police vehicles escorted the convoy of Swiss and Omani vehicles,
carrying the two Americans to Mehrabad airport, which was once
Tehran's main gateway to the world but is now used for domestic
flights. The airport is near the massive Azadi Square, which Iran
uses to hold military parades but also was a temporary hub for
protesters after Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009.
Bauer and Fattal were arrested along the Iran-Iraq border in
July 2009 and sentenced last month to eight years each in prison. A
third American arrested with them, Sarah Shourd, was freed last
year on bail.
The London-based rights group Amnesty International called the
release of the Americans a "long overdue step."
"Iranian authorities have finally seen sense" and have agreed
to release Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International Deputy Director for Middle East and North Africa. "They must now be allowed to leave Iran promptly to be
reunited with their families."
The three Americans - friends from their days at the University
of California at Berkeley - have maintained their innocence and
denied the espionage charges against them.
Their families and the U.S. government said they were just
hiking in northern Iraq's scenic and relatively peaceful Kurdish
region when they may have accidentally strayed over the unmarked
border with Iran.
The last direct contact family members had with Bauer and Fattal
was in May 2010 when their mothers were permitted a short visit in
Tehran.
It was not clear where the two men will be reunited with their
families after their release.
Phone messages left for Fattal's mother and brother in
Philadelphia were not immediately returned Wednesday.
Since her release last year, Shourd has lived in Oakland, Calif.
Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minn., and
Fattal, an environmental activist, is from suburban Philadelphia.
Bauer proposed marriage to Shourd while in prison.
After her release last September, Shourd was flown on a private
plane to the Omani capital, Muscat.
Last week, Oman again dispatched a plane belonging to the Gulf
country's ruler to the Iranian capital to fetch the two men if the
freedom-for-bail was reached.
Oman has close ties with both Tehran and Washington and plays a strategic role in the region by sharing control with Iran of the
Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, which is the
route for 40 percent of the world's oil tanker traffic.
Their case of the three Americans closely parallels that of
freelance journalist Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American who
convicted of spying before being released in May 2009. Saberi was
sentenced to eight years in prison, but an appeals court reduced
that to a two-year suspended sentence and let her return to the
U.S.
In May 2009, a French academic, Clotilde Reiss, also was freed
after her 10-year sentence on espionage-related charges was
commuted.
Last year, Iran freed an Iranian-American businessman, Reza
Taghavi, who was held for 29 months for alleged links to a bombing
in the southern city of Shiraz, which killed 14 people. Taghavi
denied any role in the attack.
The possible release of the two Americans would remove one point of tension between Iran and the United States, but suspicions still exist on both sides and no thaw is in sight.
Washington and European allies worry Iran is using its civilian
nuclear program as cover to develop atomic weapons and have urged
for even stronger sanctions to pressure Tehran. Iran denies any
efforts to make nuclear weapons.
Iran, meanwhile, is deeply concerned about the U.S. military on
its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sharply denounces U.S.
influence in the Middle East.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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