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Iran has released Sarah Shourd

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Iran has released one of the three American hikers detained in the country for more than a year. A U.S. official says freed American Sarah Shourd's flight has taken off from Iran following her release from prison. She is expected to land in Oman, where Shourd's mother is waiting for her.

"Breaking news that we have coming in right now regards one of the three American citizens who were detained in Iran and that one has been freed, and that is Sarah Shourd," the announcer said.

The lawyer for the three Americans, Masoud Shafi, says authorities released the 32-year-old from the country's notorious Evin prison. Iranian state media say she was freed on $500,000 bail.

Other accused spies

Iranian authorities detained Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal in July 2009 after saying they crossed into Iran from northern Iraq. Iran accuses the three of spying, but family members insist that they are not spies, just hikers that crossed the border by accident.

Iran announced Sunday that Shourd could be released for medical reasons, but would still face trial. Shourd's family says she needs medical treatment for a breast lump and pre-cancerous cervical cells.

Why was Shourd released?

International relations analyst and former Afghan deputy minister of foreign affairs Mahmoud Saikal tells VOA from Kabul he thinks Iran released the woman to soften what he calls the country's "harsh image" abroad.

"From time to time, there is a need to show acts of compassion, to actually prove that, at least in Iran, they do not see things in black and white," Saikal said.

Iran has faced strong international criticism after violently cracking down on protesters last year following the contested results of the country's presidential election.

Nuclear controversy

There also is the continued controversy of Iran's nuclear program. Iran is under U.N sanctions for refusing to stop uranium enrichment - a process that can result in fuel or nuclear weapons. The United States and its allies suspect Iran is using its nuclear program to develop weapons, a claim Iran denies.

Saikal also says Shourd's release comes as the United States finalizes a $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which he says Tehran views as a hostile action.

Saikal says that by releasing Shourd, Tehran could want to show it is acting in a humanitarian fashion, while Washington is pursuing military ambitions.

Last week, Iran said it would release Shourd during the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Fitr as an act of clemency. But judicial officials abruptly cancelled the plans, saying there were unresolved legal issues.

Meanwhile, Iranian authorities say they will extend the detention of Shourd's two companions for two more months.

© VOA -

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