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US and Iranian citizens freed in prisoner swap

US citizen Xiyue Wang was released by Iran, while Iranian Massoud Soleimani was freed from US custody
Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani, left, and US researcher Xiyue Wang have been freed from prison (Twitter)

The United States has freed an Iranian prisoner and Iran released a US citizen on Saturday in a deal facilitated by Switzerland, officials from both countries announced.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif welcomed the apparent prisoner swap, posting a picture of himself with Iranian scientist Massoud Soleimani on an Iranian plane. 

Soleimani, a stem cell expert, was arrested at Chicago airport in October 2018 for allegedly attempting to export biological materials to Iran in violation of US sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump said Xiyue Wang was returning to the United States after three years in an Iranian prison.

Trump thanked Tehran for a "very fair" negotiation and boasted in a tweet that Wang was taken during the Obama administration and "returned during the Trump Administration".

Switzerland facilitated the swap and Iranian state news agency IRNA said Foreign Minister Zarif welcomed Soleimani in Zurich, where it said the swap took place. It said Soleimani was expected to return to Iran in the coming hours.

In a statement issued by the White House, Trump made no mention of Soleimani's release but thanked the Swiss government for its help in negotiating Wang's return.

"Freeing Americans held captive is of vital importance to my administration, and we will continue to work hard to bring home all our citizens wrongfully held captive overseas," he said.

Meanwhile, Zarif hailed the swap on social media.

"Glad that Professor Massoud Soleimani and Mr. Xiyue Wang will be joining their families shortly. Many thanks to all engaged, particularly the Swiss government," he tweeted.

IRNA reported that Wang was released based on "Islamic clemency".

Switzerland represents US diplomatic interests in Iran since Washington and Tehran cut diplomatic ties shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Tensions have heightened between the two countries since Trump last year pulled Washington out of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Tehran's economy.

A US official told the Associated Press that US special representative for Iran Brian Hook accompanied Soleimani to Switzerland to make the exchange, adding that Hook and Wang were now "en route to Landstuhl in Germany, where Wang will be examined by doctors".

It said Wang was expected to stay in Germany for several days. Landstuhl is home to an American military medical centre.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a tweet that he was "pleased that the Iranian government has been constructive in this matter". He added, "we will not rest until we bring every American detained in Iran and around the world back home".

'Three long years'

Wang, a US citizen and Princeton University graduate student, was conducting dissertation research in Iran in 2016 when he was detained and accused by Iran of "spying under the cover of research", an allegation his family and the university deny.

He was subsequently convicted on espionage charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2017.

Hua Qu, Wang's wife, welcomed her husband's release.

"Our family is complete once again. Our son Shaofan and I have waited three long years for this day and it's hard to express in words how excited we are to be reunited with Xiyue," she said in a statement.

"We are thankful to everyone who helped make this happen."

Washington has demanded that Iran release the US citizens currently held in the country, including father and son Siamak and Baquer Namazi; Michael R. White, a Navy veteran imprisoned last year; and Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent missing since 2007.

Several dozen Iranians are being held in US prisons, many of them for breaching US-imposed sanctions.