Freed Iranians arrive in Damascus after prisoner swap
By Marwan Makdesi and Ece Toksabay
DAMASCUS/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Forty-eight Iranians freed by Syrian rebels in exchange for more than 2,000 civilian prisoners held by the Syrian government arrived in central Damascus on Wednesday, a Reuters witness reported.
The Syrian government has not referred to the prisoner swap and the whereabouts of the civilian prisoners was not immediately known.
Opposition groups accuse it of detaining tens of thousands of political prisoners during his 12 years in office and say those numbers have spiked sharply during the 21-month-old civil war.
The Syrian rebel al-Baraa brigade seized the Iranians in early August and initially threatened to kill them, saying they were members of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sent to fight for President Bashar al-Assad.
The Islamic Republic, one of his staunchest allies, denied this, saying they were Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims visiting shrines, and it asked Turkey and Qatar to use their connections with Syrian insurgents to help secure their release.
The freed Iranians arrived at a Damascus hotel in six small buses, looking tired but in good health, each carrying a white flower, and they were welcomed by Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Reza Sheibani. They did not speak to reporters.
Bulent Yildirim, head of the Turkish humanitarian aid agency IHH which helped broker the deal, told Reuters by telephone from Damascus shortly beforehand that the reciprocal release of 2,130 civilian prisoners - most of them Syrian but also including Turks and other foreign citizens - had begun.
Syrian government forces have struck local deals with rebel groups to trade prisoners but the release announced on Wednesday was the first time non-Syrians were freed in an exchange. Continued...