NEW YORK - The mothers of three Americans jailed in Iran returned to New York empty-handed Saturday, with one of the women saying that leaving their children behind was almost too much to take.

At a brief news conference at John F. Kennedy International Airport shortly after they returned to the United States, Cindy Hickey thanked the Iranians for allowing the women to see the three and said they were disappointed they could not return with their children.

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"The pain is almost more than we can bear," Hickey said, adding that the women were "exhausted and too overwhelmed by the emotion."

"We will forever savor the precious moments we were able to spend with our children," she said.

Hickey and Nora Shourd left the airport terminal holding hands in support of each other, while the third woman, Laura Fattal, walked arm-in-arm with her son.

The women bade a "very emotional goodbye" to the children they had to leave behind in Tehran, the brother of one captive said.

"They're managing to cope with an extremely difficult situation," said Alex Fattal, brother of Josh Fattal.

The detained Americans - Sarah Shourd, 31; her boyfriend, Shane Bauer, 27; and their friend Josh Fattal, 27 - have been held in Iran since July, when they were arrested along the Iraqi border. Iran has accused them of espionage; their families say that the three were hiking in Iraq's largely peaceful mountainous northern Kurdish region and that if they crossed the border, it was accidental.

The mothers - Shourd, of Oakland, Calif.; Hickey, of Pine City, Minn.; and Fattal, of Elkins Park - returned from Dubai Saturday afternoon.

Alex Fattal said that about a dozen family members around the country - in California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Colorado - had a half-hour conference call with the mothers on Friday after they arrived in Dubai from Tehran.

The women told family members they had spent a total of about 10 hours with their children over two days in Iran but failed to secure their freedom, said Alex Fattal, who is on leave from a doctoral program in anthropology at Harvard University so he can help gain the Americans' release.

"They have mixed feelings," he said. Friday, the day they left Tehran, "was a tremendously emotional day for them and for us; it was very difficult for them to leave, an extremely difficult departure after a very emotional goodbye."

The three detainees appeared healthy in TV coverage, wearing jeans and polo-style shirts. Sarah Shourd wore a maroon head scarf. They described their routines behind bars and being allowed books, letters from home, the ability to exercise, and the one hour each day they are all together.

Iran announced Friday that two of its nationals held in Iraq by U.S. forces for years were freed, raising the possibility that a behind-the-scenes swap was in the offing or that their release was a gesture of goodwill in an attempt to free the Americans.