TEHRAN Iran will soon free two Americans jailed for spying, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday, in what he called a humanitarian gesture weeks before he travels to the United Nations in New York.
"I think these two persons will be freed in a couple of days," the Iranian leader said through an interpreter in an interview broadcast on NBC's "Today" show. "We do it, for example, in a humanitarian gesture."
Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were sentenced in Iran last month to eight years in prison.
They had been arrested in July 2009 near Iran's border with Iraq, where they say they were hiking in the mountains as tourists, along with a third American, Sarah Shourd.
Bauer and Fattal were convicted last month and share a cell in Tehran's Evin prison. Shourd was allowed to go home after being freed on $500,000 bail in September 2010.
Washington has denied they were spies. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was encouraged by Ahmadinejad's remarks.
"We have followed this very closely and we are encouraged by what the Iranian government has said today," she told reporters. "We obviously hope that we will see a positive outcome from what appears to be a decision by the government."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington was working with Switzerland to find out about the men's status. The Swiss embassy represents U.S. interests in Tehran since the United States and Iran broke off diplomatic ties after the 1979 revolution.
Their lawyer said the men would soon be free and given permission to leave Iran.
"The appeals court has agreed for the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal on $500,000 bail for each of them ... They can leave Iran right after their release," Masoud Shafie told Reuters. "I just left the court a few minutes ago and informed the Swiss embassy about the recent development."
The announcement, ahead of Ahmadinejad's trip to New York to participate at the U.N. General Assembly meeting on September 22, was seen by analysts as a move to ease mounting diplomatic pressure on Iran.
"Ahmadinejad secured the release to gain popularity in America and also to evade political pressure," said analyst Reza Fakuri. The affair has heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, also at odds over Iran's disputed nuclear work.
The spokesman for the families of the hikers said that "they have heard the media reports and they are hopeful."
Ahmadinejad complained about "hostile approach" of U.S. officials toward Iran, calling attention to Iranians imprisoned in the United States.
"These two people are having a very good condition here in prison. It's like staying in a hotel. I think the problem is in the approach of the American politicians and leaders," he said.
"Let me ask a question: are they really the problem? You know how many Iranians are now in the American jails? They're all human beings. It's not about only two people in Iran."
The men's supporters say evidence against them has never been made public, and that the sentence came as a shock after hopes for their release had been boosted by positive comments from Iran's foreign minister.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Additional reporting by David Morgan and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, and Ramin Mostafavi and Hossein Jaseb in Tehran; Editing by Peter Graff)