Syrian rebels free 48 Iranians in prisoner swap
DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian rebels on Wednesday freed 48 Iranians held captive since August after President Bashar Assad's regime promised to release hundreds of detainees in the first major prisoner swap of the country's civil war, officials said.
The exchange came just days after Assad vowed to press ahead with the fight against rebels despite international pressure to end the bloodshed that has left more than 60,000 people dead.
Iran is one of Assad's main backers and the Iranians, who were seized outside Damascus in August, were a major bargaining chip for factions trying to bring down his regime.
Rebels claimed the captives were linked to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, but Tehran has denied that, saying the men were pilgrims visiting Shiite religious sites in Syria.
Mohammad Riza Shibani, the Iranian ambassador in Damascus, confirmed that the 48 prisoners have been released and were on their way to the Sheraton hotel in the Syrian capital. Shibani spoke to reporters while waiting with a group of Iranian clerics for their arrival.
He did not provide any other details of the deal or say when the release occurred. The Syrian government, which rarely gives details on security related matters, had no official comment and it was not clear what prompted the exchange.
The rebels had threatened to kill the captives unless the Syrian regime halted military operations against the opposition.
A spokesman for a Turkish Islamic aid group that helped coordinate the release said the regime had agreed to release 2,130 people in exchange for the Iranians, who were released Wednesday. The aid group said four Turks were among those to be freed.
Speaking in Istanbul, Umit Sonmez of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief said the 48 Iranians were handed over to aid workers soon after the Syrian regime let a group go.
Sonmez said the Syrian prisoners included “ordinary people or friends or relatives of the rebels.”
“This is the largest prisoner exchange to date,” Sonmez said. “We are pleased that people from all sides who were held and victimized have finally been freed.”
Turkey's state-run agency Anadolu Agency also said a group of people, including women and children, held in the Syrian Interior Ministry building in Damascus had been released and were escorted onto buses. The report could not immediately be confirmed.
An official in Syria's Interior Ministry said Wednesday that a group or prisoners would be released later in the day from the police headquarters in Damascus. But the official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements, declined to say whether the release was related to the freed Iranians.
The reported deal would mark the first major prisoner swap since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
Regime forces and rebels have exchanged prisoners before, most arranged by mediators in the suburbs of Damascus and in northern Syria, but the numbers ranged from two to 20 prisoners. The Syrian Red Crescent also has arranged exchanges of bodies from both sides.
In a speech Sunday, Assad struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands to step down and saying he is ready to talk — but only with those “who have not betrayed Syria.”
He outlined his vision for a peace initiative that would keep him in power to oversee a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new government. But he also vowed to continue the battle “as long as there is one terrorist left,” a term the government uses for rebels.
The opposition rejected his offer, which also drew harsh international criticism.
Syria's information minister slammed the international community for rejecting Assad's proposal.
Omran al-Zoubi said countries like the United States and its Western allies who have called on Assad to step down since the start of the uprising have dismissed the president's initiative “before even having the time to translate it.”
Al-Zoubi was speaking in Damascus late Tuesday after an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the proposal.