By SAEED AL-NAHDY, Associated Press
MUSCAT, Oman (AP) - Two Americans released from an Iranian prison were spending their first full day of freedom Thursday in seclusion with their families, after more than two years in custody accused as spies.
Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer arrived Wednesday in Oman under a $1 million bail-for-freedom deal and were embraced by relatives. Also on hand was Sarah Shourd, who was freed by Iran last year.
It was a joyful reunion in the Gulf state of Oman and the families called it "the best day of our lives." President Barack Obama said the men's release was "wonderful news."
The three were detained in July 2009 along the Iran-Iraq border. They maintained their innocence, saying they were only hiking in Iraq's relatively peaceful Kurdish region and might have accidentally wandered into Iran. Last month, Fattal and Bauer were sentenced to eight years in prison each for illegal entry into Iran and espionage.
American and Omani officials did not disclose details on Thursday about the Americans' plans and when they may head home. After Shourd was freed last September, she stayed for days in Oman before she flew to United States.
Iran's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Thursday that the pair's release was a gesture of Islamic mercy and a response to calls for their freedom by world leaders such as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said.
Wednesday's release capped complicated diplomatic maneuvers over a week of confusing signals by Iran's leadership. Although the fate of Fattal and Bauer 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.
"Today can only be described as the best day of our lives," said a Wednesday 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 release came on the eve of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's previously scheduled address Thursday to the U.N. General Assembly's annual ministerial meeting.
The families and Shourd were on the tarmac at a royal airfield near the main international airport in Oman's capital, Muscat. Shourd, who was arrested with the two but freed a year ago, received a marriage proposal from Bauer while in prison.
At about 20 minutes before midnight Wednesday, Fattal and Bauer - wearing jeans and casual shirts - raced down the steps from the blue-and-white plane. The men appeared thin, but in good health.
"We're so happy we are free," Fattal told reporters in Oman. The two men made brief statements before leaving the airport with their families.
"Two years in prison is too long," Bauer said, and hoped their release from prison will also bring "freedom for political prisoners in America and Iran."
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 first hint of change in the case came last week when Ahmadinejad said Fattal and Bauer could be released within days. But then came the voice of the hard-line ruling clerics, who have waged a stinging campaign against the president and his allies in recent months as part of power struggle.
The clerics made it clear: Only they have the authority to set the timing and ground rules to release the men. After several days of halting progress, their Iranian defense attorney Masoud Shafiei secured on Wednesday the necessary judicial approval 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 Swiss and Omani diplomats to Tehran's aging Mehrabad airport. Switzerland represents U.S. diplomatic interests in Iran because the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
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.
More recently, Iran used the men's pending release to draw attention to Iranians in U.S. prisons and difficulties faced by their families such as securing visas for visits.
Since her release last year, Shourd has lived in Oakland, California. Bauer, a freelance journalist, grew up in Onamia, Minnesota. and Fattal, an environmental activist, is from suburban Philadelphia.
Shourd and Bauer had been living together in Damascus, Syria, where Bauer was working as a freelance journalist and Shourd as an English teacher. Fattal, an environmental activist, went to visit them in July 2009 shortly before their trip to northern Iraq.
Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report. (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)