Sarah Shourd, one of three American hikers held for more than 13 months in Iran, was finally released yesterday and reunited with her mother in Oman, after being allowed to leave prison on bail of $500,000 (£320,000).
But the Iranian authorities said her two male companions – Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal – will remain behind bars. A judge extended their "pre-trial detention" yesterday for two months for allegedly crossing the border illegally from Iraq.
Ms Shourd's departure on the two-hour flight to Oman was first announced by the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which looks after US interests there. "I want to really offer my thanks to everyone in the world, all of the governments, all of the people, that have been involved, and especially, particularly want to address President Ahmadinejad and all of the Iranian officials, the religious leaders, and thank them for this humanitarian gesture," Ms Shourd told Iran's English-language Press TV before she left the country.
Her mother, Nora, said: "I've hoped and prayed for this moment for 410 days." President Barack Obama said he was "very pleased" at Ms Shourd's release, and expressed the hope that Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal would be freed as well. But that is unlikely to happen any time soon.
There appeared to be an internal Iranian power struggle ahead of Ms Shourd's release. Disclosing the bail arrangement, Iranian prosecutors said they were acting because Ms Shourd was ill; her mother said after a visit to Tehran in May that the prisoner was suffering from serious medical problems, including a breast lump and pre-cancerous cervical cells.
But only five days before, the Iranian judiciary snubbed President Ahmadinejad by blocking his publicly announced plans to release Ms Shourd as a goodwill gesture on 10 September, immediately after the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The stated reason was that "legal procedures" had not been completed. More likely, the disagreement reflected the fact that the head of the judiciary was the brother of Ali Larijani, a rival of Mr Ahmadinejad's since losing the 2005 presidential election to him.
All the while, the three hikers have been pawns in the tussle between the US and Iran, who have had no diplomatic relations since the hostage crisis in November 1979, and who are now at odds over Tehran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, its hostility to Israel and its support of radical Islamic groups in the Middle East.
The hikers insist that if they strayed across the poorly marked mountainous border in northern Iraq, it was by accident. Some reports have claimed they were seized by Iranian border guards while on Iraqi soil. Tehran maintains they were on a spying mission, a charge Washington flatly denies.
Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, has repeatedly stressed their innocence, and Mr Obama yesterday did the same. Mr Bauer and Mr Fattal committed no crime, the President said, expressing the hope that Iran "will demonstrate renewed compassion by ensuring the return of Shane, Josh and all the other missing or detained Americans in Iran".
In a joint statement, the families of the three hikers greeted yesterday's developments with mixed emotions. Despite their joy at Ms Shourd's release, they were "heartbroken that Shane and Josh are still being denied their freedom for no just cause". They deserved to come home too as "Iran has no grounds to deprive them of their liberty a moment longer", the statement said.
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