Syria frees rebels in huge swap for Iranian ‘pilgrims’

The guardian, DAMACUS

Fri, Jan 11, 2013 - Page 6

Syria has released 2,130 opposition prisoners in exchange for 48 Iranians who were abducted while apparently on a pilgrimage in Damascus five months ago.

The first big prisoner swap of the 21-month war, brokered by a Turkish humanitarian group and the Qatari government, was a reminder of the sheer scale of the Syrian crisis.

Syrian state media made no mention of the mass exchange, but it was confirmed by the Iranian government and officials of the Turkish humanitarian aid group IHH.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said the prisoners would be home shortly.

Syrian government forces have struck deals with rebel groups to swap prisoners, but the mass release is the first time any non-Syrians have been freed. The detainees included a number of Turks.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is likely to have come under heavy pressure from Iran, his staunchest regional supporter, to do a deal to free the captives. Syrian rebel fighters accused the 48 of being members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which was helping the al-Assad regime.

Iran denied this, but said some of them were retired guards. Officials at the Iranian Pilgrimage and Travel Organization said they included students and civil servants.

In October last year, the rebels threatened to kill the Iranians unless Damascus released captured fighters and halted military operations.

Turkish media reported that a group of people, including women and children, held at the Syrian Ministry of the Interior in Damascus had been released and escorted on to buses. Releases also took place in Latakia, Homs, Idlib and Aleppo.

Iran’s Press TV showed footage of a group of elderly men arriving at a Damascus hotel and Iranian officials giving them white flowers.

Iran has made no secret of its backing for al-Assad, but usually denies providing the military or security support claimed by the Syrian opposition and the West.

However, last summer, a senior revolutionary guard commander admitted that Iran was helping, though the statement was later retracted.

In other developments, it was announced that UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is to meet senior US and Russian diplomats in Geneva, Switzerland, today. The meeting follows a speech by al-Assad on Sunday saying that the opposition and Western governments said failed to offer a way out of the crisis.