American hikers arrested as spies released from Iranian prison

TEHRAN, Iran - Two Americans jailed as spies in Iran were released Wednesday after more than two years in custody following a court approval of a $1 million bail deal.

"The case is over," their attorney, Masoud Shafiei, said. "The court has ordered that they be freed on bail," he added.

Shane Bauer and Josh 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.

Swiss diplomats were standing by at the prison, waiting to pick up the two Americans. Switzerland represents American interests in Iran because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Tehran.

The case of Bauer and Fattal, who were convicted 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.

Shafiei said the bail of $500,000 for each of the men was posted after some last-minute bank problems were resolved. He did not say who put up the money.

The release of the pair will likely follow the pattern of Sarah Shourd's release last September after a $500,000 bails was posted. She was then flown on a private plane to the Omani capital Muscat.

Last week, Oman dispatched a plane belonging to the Gulf country's ruler to fetch the two Americans if the freedom-for-bail was reached.

Omani officials declined to comment on the ongoing proceedings for the Americans' release. They only said the private plane, sent from Muscat to the Iranian capital last Wednesday, was still in Tehran.

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.

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 say 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.

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.

Phone messages left for Fattal's mother and brother in Philadelphia were not immediately returned Wednesday.

It was not clear where the two men will be reunited with their families after their release. 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.

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Associated Press Writer Saeed El-Nahdy in Muscat, Oman, contributed to this report.


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