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Oman plane in Iran, awaiting U.S. citizens' release

MUSCAT (Reuters) - The Gulf state of Oman has sent a plane to Iran for the expected release of two U.S. citizens convicted of spying, and they could be freed within 24 hours, an Omani Foreign Ministry official said on Friday.

"We are still waiting for the final word about taking the Americans to Muscat with our plane now in Tehran. Hard to say when that will happen, perhaps in the next 24 hours, but we are hopeful it will happen soon," the official told Reuters, declining to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a U.S. TV interview aired on Tuesday that Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal would be freed in coming days in a humanitarian gesture before his trip to the United Nations in New York. But Iran's judiciary then said the release was not imminent.

Oman dispatched the plane on Thursday after its ruler, Sultan Qaboos, received assurances from Iran about flying the two Americans to the Omani capital Muscat to be handed over to the U.S. embassy, the Foreign Ministry official said.

Oman also helped facilitate the release of a third member of the group a year ago.

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington remained hopeful that Iran would release the two U.S. hikers and was not unduly concerned by Tehran's delay in carrying out a pledge to free them earlier this week.

Clinton said the United States had noted previous delays between official Iranian announcements and their eventual execution and had been assured by a number of sources both publicly and privately that the two men would be freed.

Bauer and Fattal were arrested in July 2009 near Iran's border with Iraq, where they say they were hiking in the mountains as tourists. They were with a third American, Sarah Shourd, who was allowed to go home in September 2010 after being freed on $500,000 bail.

Their lawyer said on Tuesday the men, who were sentenced last month to eight years' imprisonment, would be released on $500,000 bail each. They share a cell in Tehran's Evin prison.

U.S. officials have repeatedly denied the two men were spies and the case has caused further tension between Tehran and Washington, which says the Islamic state is trying to develop nuclear weapons and has imposed sanctions on Iran.

Tehran denies this, saying its nuclear program is only aimed at generating power and it has refused to suspend its sensitive nuclear work despite several U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it do so.

(Reporting by Saleh al-Shaibany; Writing by Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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