Iranians freed in Syrian prisoner swap

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 January, 2013, 4:34am

The 48 Iranians held hostage by Syrian rebels for more than five months and freed in a prisoner exchange arrived back in Tehran yesterday to an official welcome.

The rebels agreed to swap the Iranians, described by the Islamic republic as pilgrims but by the rebels and Washington as members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, for 2,130 detainees held by President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The prisoner exchange, the largest in Syria's 21-month old conflict, was arranged through mediation by Turkey and Qatar, according to several sources.

A Turkish aid group, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, said it spearheaded the swap of the Iranians for 2,139 detainees, who were mostly Syrians but included some foreigners such as Turks.

The rebels, who captured the 48 five months ago, accused some of them of being Revolutionary Guards sent to Syria on a reconnaissance mission, putting a video online that showed the captives and military ID cards they had been carrying.

Tehran at first presented all 48 as pilgrims, before acknowledging some were "retired" members of the Revolutionary Guards.

The rebels threatened at least twice to kill their hostages if the Syrian army did not pull back from the outskirts of Damascus.

After the Iranians' release on Wednesday, they looked visibly exhausted, with some weeping.

Iran's ambassador in Syria, Mohammed Reza Shibani, said they had been kidnapped on the road linking Damascus airport with the Sayyida Zainab district, site of an important Shiite shrine.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press