Three US prisoners freed by Iran arrive at American military base in Germany

Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran correspondent, is pictured at The Washington Post in Washington, DC in a Nov 6, 2013 photo.
Jason Rezaian, the Washington Post's Tehran correspondent, is pictured at The Washington Post in Washington, DC in a Nov 6, 2013 photo.PHOTO: REUTERS

BERLIN (AFP) - Three of the four US citizens freed by Iran in a prisoner swap arrived in Germany on Sunday, a US official said, where they were expected at an American military base.

The released prisoners landed in Germany after a brief stopover in Geneva. Among those on board was The Washington Post's Teheran correspondent Jason Rezaian, who had been detained in Iran for nearly 18 months.

"We can confirm that the US citizens who departed Iran this morning after being released from detention have arrived in Germany," a State Department official in Washington said.

Earlier on Sunday evening, senior US diplomat Brett McGurk posted a picture of himself welcoming Rezaian as he got off the plane at Geneva airport.

"Overwhelmed to greet Jason #Rezaian, his wife, Yegi, mother, Mary + Saeed #Abedini + Amir #Hekmati to #Geneva after safely departing #Iran," McGurk wrote on Twitter.

The group arrived in Geneva from Teheran aboard a Swiss air force plane, touching down at around 1700 GMT before changing planes to head to Germany.

The Swiss foreign ministry had earlier said that the freed prisoners, all of whom have dual US-Iranian citizenship, would be heading to an American base in Germany.

According to US media, their destination was the Ramstein air base in western Germany, where the freed men were expected to undergo medical exams.

Neither US nor Swiss officials had explicitly named those on board the plane, but McGurk's tweet confirmed reports that the three freed prisoners were Rezaian, Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor, and former US Marine Amir Hekmati.

Iran had announced their release on Saturday, just hours before Teheran's historic nuclear deal with world powers was implemented, in exchange for Washington pardoning seven Iranians accused of sanctions-busting or violating trade embargoes.

"When Americans are freed, that's something we can all celebrate," US President Barak Obama said in a televised statement from the White House.

But he also sounded a note of caution, adding that the US would continue to have problems with the Iranian government's "destabilising activities" in the region, including its support for militant groups.

The Swiss foreign ministry said the prisoner swap followed 14 months of confidential discussions in Switzerland.

The fourth Iranian-American released as part of the swap, Nosratollah Khosravi-Roodsari, has not yet left Teheran, senior US officials said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, officials said Khosravi-Roodsari - about whom little is known - elected not to board the plane that left for Switzerland.

"Those who wished to depart Iran have left," said one official. Another said "it's his free determination where he wants to go". A fifth American, Matthew Trevithick, was released in a separate process, a US official has said.

Iranian state television said the seven Iranians - Nader Modanlou, Baharam Mechanic, Khosrow Afghahi, Arash Ghahreman, Tooraj Faridi, Nima Golestaneh, and Ali Saboonchi - "will be freed today".

The family of former US Marine Hekmati, who faced a death sentence as an alleged spy, welcomed the news that he had left Iran.

"It is hard to put into words what our family feels right now. But we remain in hopeful anticipation until Amir is in our arms." Washington Post publisher Frederick Ryan said in a statement: "We are relieved that this 545-day nightmare for Jason and his family is finally over." The 39-year-old Rezaian, a dual US-Iranian citizen born in California, was detained in Iran on July 22, 2014 on espionage charges.

The Post statement thanked those "around the world who have spoken out on Jason's behalf and against the harsh confinement that was so wrongly imposed upon him".

The UN nuclear watchdog announced late Saturday that Iran had complied with its side of the July 2015 accord, allowing the lifting of sanctions.