Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, the two U.S. hikers imprisoned in Iran for the past two years, sprinted to freedom today down the steps of a Royal Omani Air Force jet onto a tarmac in Muscat, Oman.
Looking healthy and upbeat, they were greeted by family and friends in an emotional scrum of smiles, hugs and tears, and a long kiss between Bauer and his fiancee, Sarah Shourd, a fellow American prisoner in Iran until one year ago this week.
"We are so happy we are free and so relieved we are free," Fattal, detained in Iran since 2009, told reporters upon arriving. "Our deepest gratitude to his majesty [Omani King] Sultan Qaboos [bin Said Al Said] for obtaining our release. We are sincerely grateful to the government of Oman for hosting us and our families."
Fattal, Bauer and Shourd were arrested two years ago while hiking along Iran's unmarked border with Iraq. They were accused of spying and last month Fattal and Bauer were sentenced to eight years in prison.
"Two years in prison is too long," Bauer told reporters, "and we sincerely hope for the freedom of other political prisoners and other unjustly imprisoned people in America and Iran."
The hikers' families have described the freeing of Bauer and Fattal as "the best day of our lives."
President Obama also hailed the development.
"I welcome the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal from detention in Iran and am very pleased that they are being reunited with their loved ones," Obama said in a written statement. "The tireless advocacy of their families over these two years has won my admiration, and is now coming to an end with Josh and Shane back in their arms. All Americans join their families and friends in celebrating their long-awaited return home."
The men's release ends two years of diplomatic wrangling and, more recently, weeks of political infighting, as Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the country's judiciary argued about freeing the Americans.
Bauer and Fattal were released after an Iranian judge who had twice delayed their release today signed an order to free the men following deposits of $500,000 bail each.
"Today can only be described as the best day of our lives," their families said in a statement issued from Oman before the two men arrived. "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."
News of the release came moments before Obama was set to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. Ahmadinejad is also in New York for the annual plenary.
Obama voiced his excitement about the hikers' release to a CNN camera as he left the U.N.
"Wonderful, wonderful news about the hikers," Obama said. "We are thrilled. And I could not feel better for the families and those moms we've been in close contact with. A wonderful day for them and for us."
Attorney Masoud Shafii, the lawyer representing Bauer and Fattal, told ABC News earlier today that, "The natural path has taken its course."
Shafii, along with the Omani and Swiss diplomats who've been negotiating the hikers' release, waited today inside the notorious Tehran prison where the pair was held to take them to their freedom. United States interests in Tehran are handled by Switzerland because there is no U.S. embassy there.
The delay of the hikers' release has been thought to be an attempt by Ahmadinejad's political rivals to prevent him from gaining traction on the world stage.
The Omanis played a key part in the negotiations of the hikers' release. Oman is the same place that their companion Sarah Shourd went when she was freed from Iran nearly a year ago to the day. Shourd was in Oman today to greet the men. she's engaged to Bauer.
Ahmadinejad announced plans to release Bauer and Fattal on $500,000 bail each last week. Although one judge had signed the paperwork Saturday, Ahmadinejad left for that meeting in New York Monday with the two Americans still behind bars.
It was disclosed today that the government of Oman paid the $1 million bail for the two men. A third hiker, Sarah Shroud, who was initially detained with the two men were released in 2009. Oman paid the bail for her release as well.
In their statement, the family thanked Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, Oman's king.
Bauer and Fattal's release has been beset by mixed signals since Ahmadinejad indicated a fast-track release. Iran's judiciary, which is directly controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, swiftly reminded the public that only the courts have the power to control the release's timing.
The two men were convicted last month for spying and illegally entering Iran and were both sentenced to eight years in prison. They appealed the verdicts and an Iranian court set bail of $500,000 each, opening the way for their release.
Bauer, a freelance journalist, and Fattal, and environmental activist, have denied the charges, saying they were just hiking in Iraq's scenic north, and might have accidentally crossed an unmarked border with Iran.
Shourd was detained with them, but she was released last September with mediation by Oman after her $500,000 bail was paid. The payment of bail in the cases must be arranged through third parties, such as Oman, because of the United States' economic sanctions on Iran.