After more than two years in Iranian custody, two Americans convicted as spies took their first steps toward home Wednesday as they bounded down from a private jet and into the arms of family for a joyful reunion in the Gulf state of Oman.
The families called this "the best day of our lives," and President Obama said their release -- under a $1 million bail-for-freedom deal -- "wonderful news."
The release capped complicated diplomatic maneuvers over a week of confusing signals by Iran's leadership on the fate of Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer.
For Tehran, it was a chance to court some good will after sending a message of defiance with hard-line justice in the July 2009 arrests of the Americans along the Iran-Iraq border. The Americans always maintained they were innocent hikers.
"Today can only be described as the best day of our lives," said a statement from their families. "We have waited for nearly 26 months for this moment and the joy and relief we feel at Shane and Josh's long-awaited freedom knows no bounds."
"We now all want nothing more than to wrap Shane and Josh in our arms, catch up on two lost years and make a new beginning, for them and for all of us," the statement added.
Obama called it "wonderful, wonderful news about the hikers, we are thrilled. It's a wonderful day for them and for us."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the hikers' release, saying he "appreciates the decision to respond to international appeals on humanitarian grounds," said spokesman Martin Nesirky.
The release came on the eve of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's previously scheduled address today to the U.N. General Assembly's annual ministerial meeting.
The families waited on the tarmac at a royal airfield near the main international airport in Oman's capital, Muscat. Also returning to Oman was Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with Bauer and Fattal but freed a year ago. She received a marriage proposal from Bauer while in prison.
At about 20 minutes before midnight, Fattal and Bauer -- wearing jeans and casual shirts -- raced down the steps from the blue-and-white plane. They made no statements to reporters before walking into the airport terminal building, which was guarded by security officials. The men appeared thin but in good health.
"We're so happy we are free," Fattal told reporters in Oman. The two men made brief statements before leaving the airport with their families.
"Two years in prison is too long," Bauer said. He hoped their release from prison would also bring "freedom for political prisoners in America and Iran."
In many ways, the release was a mirror image of the scene last year when Shourd was freed on $500,000 bail. That deal, too, was mediated by Oman, an Arabian peninsula sultanate with close ties to both Tehran and Washington. Oman said it hoped the release would lead to better ties between Iran and the United States.
Just a month ago, Bauer and Fattal -- both 29 -- were appealing their eight-year prison terms for espionage and illegal entry into Iran. They denied the charges and said they were merely hikers in Iraq's Kurdistan region who wandered close to Iran's border.
Oman had acted as mediator in the releases and the apparent transfer point for the bail money because of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran.