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Iran hints at hikers' release deal

Iran's foreign minister has said the courts are willing in "the near future" to commute the prison sentences for two Americans convicted of spying.

In a case that has added to the acrimony and deep distrust between Iran and the US, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both 29, were detained along the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 with their friend Sarah Shourd.

Ms Shourd was released last September after mediation by the Gulf nation of Oman and the payment of 500,000 US dollars (£317,000).

The release of the two men rests in the hands of the hard-line judiciary, and foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi gave no clear timetable in his remarks. He also raised the issue of Iranians held in US prisons, suggesting the Americans' release might be drawn out to bring attention to inmates Iran wants freed.

The two men were convicted of illegally entering Iran and spying for the United States and were sentenced to a total of eight years in prison each.

They denied the charges and appealed against the verdicts, opening the way for the possible deal to free them in exchange for 500,000 US dollars (£317,000) bail each.

Mr Salehi said Iran's judiciary is ready to commute the sentences as a gesture of Islamic mercy. But he did not give any clearer indication of when they could be released.

"The judiciary's decision is to commute (the Americans') punishment," the foreign minister said. "We expect the judiciary to make its decision in the near future.

"We hope this issue will be finalised so that both families of Iranians who are waiting (for inmates in US prisons) as well as the families of these US nationals will, God willing, hear good news," he added.

The Americans say they may have mistakenly crossed into Iran when they stepped off a road while hiking near a waterfall in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

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