Two US hikers jailed for spying and illegal entry have arrived in Oman on their way home after Iran released them on bail, months after handing them hefty jail terms.
Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 29, were flown into Muscat on an Omani Royal Air Force plane that landed at the private airport of Sultan Qaboos bin Said on Wednesday.
US President Barack Obama hailed the release, telling reporters in New York “we are thrilled”, while their families said in a joint statement it is “the best day of our lives”.
The pair was released earlier from Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, after more than two years in jail for spying and illegal entry into Iran, after the Gulf sultanate of Oman paid their bail.
Their case poisoned already difficult relations between Tehran and Washington and the release came as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in New York for the UN General Assembly.
Bauer’s mother and father were in Oman to welcome him, along with his two sisters, fellow hiker Sarah Shourd and Fattal’s father, mother and brother.
Wearing light-coloured shirts and black trousers, Fattal and Bauer ran down the steps of the plane smiling and shouting happily as they hugged their parents and took photographs with them.
“They are healthy, happy and strong,” Fattal’s father said.
The sultan’s envoy to Iran who mediated for their release, Salim al-Ismaili, arrived with them on the same plane. “After all the effort I’ve exerted, I’m going to need a one-year vacation,” he told reporters.
A message by the families thanked Sultan Qaboos, his envoy, their Iranian lawyer Masoud Shafii and the Swiss Ambassador to Iran “for working to make today a reality”.
“We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment,” said the statement which was also signed by Shourd, Bauer’s fiancee, who was released last year.
“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.”
Obama called the release “wonderful news” and said: “I could not feel better for their families and those mums who we have been in close contact with, it’s a wonderful day for them and for us.”
Oman, a US Gulf ally which has good relations with Iran, agreed to pay the two men’s bail which was set at five billion rials ($A390,000) each.
“Yes, the money for the bail was provided by Oman,” said the pair’s lawyer Masoud Shafii.
Oman also paid bail for the release of Shourd, the third hiker released last year on humanitarian and medical grounds. She also made her way home via Muscat.
Last week Ahmadinejad announced that Fattal and Bauer would be freed and again said on Tuesday that they would be released, amid concern over the delays in their release.
Bauer and Fattal were arrested along with Shourd near the mountainous border with Iraq on July 31, 2009.
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.
Shourd, a teacher, writer and women’s rights activist, met Bauer, a fluent Arabic-speaking freelance journalist, while helping to organise demonstrations in the US 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.