Ahmadinejad offers US hikers a lifeline after two years in jail

The families' efforts to have the two men released and returned home have met one agonising setback after another

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The Independent Online

The Iranian regime signalled yesterday that it was granting bail to two American hikers at the centre of a diplomatic dispute since they were seized while trekking around a popular waterfall in northern Iraq more than two years ago and accused of spying for the United States.

Word that the two friends, Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, both 29 and graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, were at last on the brink of regaining their freedom tantalised their families back in the US, whose efforts to have them released until now have met one agonising setback after another, thanks in part to the tangled nature of the US-Iranian relationship and the often opaque judicial process in Tehran.

The Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is preparing to launch his annual international media blitz ahead of the September UN General Assembly in New York, told NBC News last night that he expected the pair to be set free "in a couple of days". The bail offer, coming two months after the men were each sentenced to eight years in prison, was meant as a "humanitarian gesture", he said.

Meanwhile a lawyer for the Americans, Masoud Shafiei, confirmed that the procedures for releasing them on bail of $500,000 (£316,000) each had been set in motion by a court in Tehran earlier yesterday. "They accepted to set bail to release," he told the Associated Press after leaving the court.

It is a year since bail of the same amount was set for a third in the hikers' group, Sarah Shourd, who was suffering from ill health. After it was paid, she left Tehran and returned directly to the United States. That her two friends are being released 12 months later may be a sign that Iran is again eager to ease tensions with Washington as the UN meetings in New York approach.

US officials said they had not received independent confirmation from Tehran that the two men would be freed. "We obviously hope that we will see a positive outcome from what appears to be a decision by the government," a still cautious Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, told reporters in Washington. The US has no diplomatic relations with Iran and all communication with the regime is conducted through the Swiss embassy there. The government of Oman was involved last time in mediating the deal that led to bail being set for Ms Shourd.

Declaring their innocence from the start, the two men have said that they may have unwittingly erred into Iranian territory when they stepped off a dirt track while visiting the area of the falls in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Their version of what happened is one of orienteering carelessness, not international espionage.

That the trio chose to roam an area so close to the border of a country that is hostile to the US may have been "imprudent", Alex Fattal, the brother of Joshua, told The Independent in an interview in the family's home outside Philadelphia last year.

His mother, Laura Fattal, said dealing with the Iranians in trying to get her son released had been like falling down a "rabbit hole". She and the mothers of the other two hikers were allowed into the country only once to see them, in early 2010. Hopes that they might have brought them home on that occasion were dashed.

Yesterday the families made no public comment on the evolving situation but a spokesman for them said they were "hopeful" that the men would be soon be coming home.

In the interview, Mr Ahmadinejad suggested that the two Americans had enjoyed "hotel-like" conditions in Tehran and spoke of Iranians being held in US prisons.

"It's like staying in a hotel. I think the problem is in the approach of the American politicians and leaders," he said. "Let me ask a question: Are they really the problem? You know how many Iranians are now in the American jails? They're all human beings. It's not about only two people in Iran." Washington continues to lead the international campaign of sanctions against Iran, saying it is using its fast-growing civilian nuclear industry to cover up a programme to build nuclear weapons.

Last month, Iran made its first proposal in two years to ease that stand-off, saying it would allow inspectors to monitor all of its nuclear activities in return for a lifting of the sanctions.

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