Freed Iranian 'diplomats' back to hero's welcome

The five Iranians who spent 30 months in US military custody in Iraq, are welcomed with garlands of flowers at Tehran's airport.

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The US military freed the five on Thursday after arresting them in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil on January 11, 2007, accusing them of arming militias in Iraq and inciting anti-US attacks in the war-torn country. Iran insists that the five are diplomats and protested that they were arrested in violation of international diplomatic conventions. The men were welcomed with garlands of flowers at Tehran's Mehrabad airport where they were greeted by the Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, along with other officials, and a crowd of several dozen people.

The Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said the release of the five was in line with a security accord between Baghdad and Washington under which all detainees in US custody should be transferred to the Iraqi authorities. US officials maintained the men had no diplomatic status and the White House also denied the five had been freed as a diplomatic gesture to Iran. The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi said the five were "innocent" and had been arrested in breach of international rules covering privileges and immunity for diplomatic missions.

The detention of the five has long been an extra bone of contention in the decades of hostile relations between Iran and the United States, which accuses Tehran of stoking unrest in Iraq. Soon after taking office in January, the US president Barack Obama called for dialogue with Iran after three decades of severed ties and years of international tensions over Tehran's nuclear drive. But relations took a turn for the worse again after Iran cracked down on massive public protests over the disputed re-election of Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June.