Iran frees two French citizens, says Macron

By Dominique Vidalon

PARIS (Reuters) -Two French citizens, Bernard Phelan and Benjamin Briere, have been freed from detention in Iran, President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday, calling it "a relief".

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said in a separate statement that both men were now on their way to France, adding that she spoke to her Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian, on Friday morning.

"Benjamin Briere and Bernard Phelan will be reunited with their loved ones. This is a relief," Macron said on Twitter.

Iran's foreign ministry said the releases were carried out "as a humanitarian act in line with relevant laws and regulations", state media reported.

Relations between France and Iran have deteriorated in recent months with Tehran detaining seven French nationals in what Paris has described as arbitrary arrests equivalent to state hostage-taking.

A Franco-Irish citizen, Phelan was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison in March for "providing information to another country", despite his poor health, his family had said.

The tourism consultant was arrested as anti-government protests spread following the death last year of a young Iranian Kurdish woman, Masha Amini, while in the custody of Iran's morality police.

Briere had been held in the Islamic Republic since his May 2020 arrest for flying a remote-controlled mini helicopter used to obtain aerial or motion images near the Turkmenistan-Iran border. An Iranian court sentenced him to eight years in prison on spying charges in early 2022.

Acquitted on appeal in February, Briere was nevertheless detained until his release on Friday.

At least four other French nationals are still imprisoned in Iran.

"We will continue to work towards the return of our fellow nationals who are still detained in Iran," Macron added.

Iran has arrested dozens of foreigners and dual nationals in recent years, mostly on espionage and security-related accusations. Rights groups call that a tactic to win concessions from abroad by inventing charges, an accusation Tehran denies.

(Reporting by Dominique Vidalon and Tassilo Hummel, additional reporting by Dubai newsroom; editing by William Maclean, Richard Lough and Mark Heinrich)