by Farhad Pouladi

TEHRAN, September 21, 2011 (AFP) – Two US hikers jailed for spying and illegal entry were on their way home to the United States on Wednesday after Iran released them on bail, months after handing them hefty jail terms.

Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer, both 29, were driven straight 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.

The release of the pair, who had been in custody for more than two years in a case that poisoned already difficult relations between Tehran and Washington, came as President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was in New York for the UN General Assembly.

“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,” Iran’s official IRNA news agency reported.

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

The Swiss Foreign Ministry confirmed in a statement issued late Wednesday that the two hikers have been able to leave Iranian territory.

“The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs welcomes the release of the two American citizens Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal from Iranian imprisonment,” said the ministry in a statement.

“They were able to leave Iran on September 21st 2011,” it 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 US 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 Shafii said.

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

The Swiss ministry also revealed that besides Oman, Iraq also acted as one of the mediators.

“Our thanks go out to all those who were involved, particularly to Oman and Iraq, whose mediation decisively contributed to the release of the two Americans,” said Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey.

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 US network ABC, amid concern over the delays in their release.

Ahmadinejad told US 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 Shafii had been told on Sunday to expect the second judge to return to work on Tuesday.

Bauer and Fattal were arrested along with Shourd, who left Iran in September last year 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 programme, its refusal to recognise Israel and its support for militant groups across the Middle East.

US President Barack Obama regarded the jail terms handed down against the pair as “an abomination,” top White House diplomatic nominee Wendy Sherman told the US 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 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.