American hiker freed by Iran

Sarah Shourd (R) embraces her mother Nora upon her arrival at the Omani capital Muscat. AFP

MUSCAT (AFP) – American hiker and accused spy Sarah Shourd arrived in Oman from Iran on Tuesday after being freed on bail, with US President Barack Obama expressing hope her two companions will soon be released.

"I want to say that ... all my efforts will go into securing freedom for my friends, because I cannot enjoy freedom without them," Shourd told reporters at the airport. "They don't deserve to be in prison for (any) longer."

Shourd, 32, was arrested along with fellow hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal on July 31, 2009 after straying into Iran from Iraq.

She arrived in Muscat aboard an aircraft owned by the sultan of Oman, and was met at the airport by her mother Nora, her paternal uncle and US Ambassador Richard Schmierer, an Omani official said.

Shourd, dressed in jeans, trainers, a beige knee-length coat and a mauve headscarf, smiled as she walked down the steps from the plane. Moments later, she embraced her mother who was waiting for her on the tarmac.

A US embassy spokesman said she would spend Tuesday night in Muscat, without providing details about her subsequent plans.

Iranian authorities have accused Shourd, Bauer and Fattal of "spying and illegally entering the country."

The three have rejected the charges, insisting they mistakenly entered Iran after getting lost during a trek in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Shourd was freed on bail of around 500,000 dollars (391,000 euros), which was paid in Oman at Iran's state-run Bank Melli, Iran's English-language Press TV reported, quoting Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the United States did not pay any bail.

"The United States didn't pay anything for her release," he told reporters, adding that an unnamed entity or individual "provided sufficient assurances" to Iran to secure Shourd's release.

"If money has changed hands, the short answer is we don't know," he said.

Obama welcomed Shourd's release and immediately called for freeing the other two hikers.

"I am very pleased that Sarah Shourd has been released by the Iranian government, and will soon be united with her family," Obama said in a statement.

"While Sarah has been released, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal remain prisoners in Iran who have committed no crime," he said.

"We remain hopeful that Iran will demonstrate renewed compassion by ensuring the return of Shane, Josh and all the other missing or detained Americans in Iran."

Shourd's release could help ease the tension between arch-foes Iran and the United States that has peaked in recent months over Tehran's controversial nuclear programme.

The Swiss embassy worked intensely in securing Shourd's release, as the mission manages US interests in Iran, with Washington and Tehran having no diplomatic relations since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

And without giving details, the Omani government said it had been involved in securing Shourd's release, and thanked the Iranian authorities for their favourable response.

Earlier Tuesday, the Tehran prosecutor's office announced Shourd's release.

"Sarah Shourd has been handed over to the officials of the Swiss embassy in Iran, which represents US interests, after she was freed from jail," its website said.

The detention of Bauer and Fattal has been "extended by two months... Therefore there is no talk of the release of the two," Dolatabadi said in comments translated by Press TV.

He said the two can object to their detention, but it is "the revolutionary court which is in charge of such espionage charges. We should wait for the trial to be held."

Shourd's release, which had been expected as early as last Saturday, came after some hiccups.

The judiciary accused the government of pushing for her release, while some conservative lawmakers criticised President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad directly for freeing her at a time when tension between Tehran and Washington is at its peak.

On Sunday, Dolatabadi issued a scathing criticism of the government, saying "releasing information on judicial cases should not be done by government officials, and judicial authorities should handle it."

And prominent conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli hit out directly at Ahmadinejad, accusing him of pushing for Shourd's release, which would "intensify (US) pressure day by day" on Iran.

Shourd's mother told AFP last month her daughter was being held in solitary confinement despite suffering from a pre-cancerous cervical condition, a lump in her breast and depression.

In May, Iran allowed visits to the trio by their mothers, who reported Shourd and Bauer, 28, had become engaged while behind bars.

Meanwhile, supporters of the trio, on a Facebook page dedicated to the three hikers, rejoiced at the news of Shourd's release.

"Praise God! Now Release the others, Shane and Josh!" wrote Ellen Dannan, one of over 20,000 "Free the Hikers" fans.

Other news