x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Iranians released by Syrian rebels arrive in Damascus

Syrian rebels have freed 48 Iranians held captive since August in exchange for the release of more than 2,000 detainees, in the first major prisoner swap of the civil war.

Iranians released by Syrian rebels arrive at a hotel in Damascus. The men were accompanied by the Iranian ambassador to Syria and arrived looking tired but in good health.
Iranians released by Syrian rebels arrive at a hotel in Damascus. The men were accompanied by the Iranian ambassador to Syria and arrived looking tired but in good health.

DAMASCUS // Syrian rebels yesterday freed 48 Iranians they had held captive since August in exchange for the release of more than 2,000 detainees, in the first major prisoner swap of the civil war.

It came as Syria's main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, yesterday welcomed comments by the UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, criticising the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.

He said a speech by Mr Al Assad on Sunday was a "lost opportunity" to end the crisis, and that the president's initiatives to end the violence were "sectarian and one-sided". He also said the Assad familyhad ruled for "too long".

"The statement of Lakhdar Brahimi has been long-awaited," said Walid Saffour, the coalition's representative to Britain. "He hasn't criticised Bashar Al Assad before."

The Iranian hostages were seized outside Damascus in August. The 48 men arrived at a hotel in vans escorted by Syrian security forces.

Iran's ambassador in Damascus, Mohammad Riza Shibani, greeted them with hugs and flowers.

Rebels had claimed the captives were linked to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard. Tehran said they were pilgrims visiting Shiite religious sites in Syria.

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.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said four Turks and "a number of Palestinians" were among the prisoners being released by Syria. He said a Turkish and a Qatari aid organisation had helped to broker the deal, and that Turkey had talked to the rebels.

There were conflicting reports about how many of the prisoners in Syrian custody had actually been freed by last night.

* With additional reporting by Reuters