BEIRUT -- Syrian rebel fighters released 48 Iranians captured last August in what could become the largest prisoner exchange of Syria's civil war, Iranian and Turkish state media reported.
A Turkish Islamic relief group supervised the release that is supposed to lead to the freeing of at least 2,130 detainees held by Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, according to Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency. Anadolu credited Turkey and Qatar with mediating the deal.
The exchange, if fully implemented, would mark a rare break from the brutality of the nearly 22-month-old civil war that has seen Assad order airstrikes and shell cities as rebels carry out bombings and assassinations.
Last week, Assad delivered a rare speech to his people, denigrating the rebel groups as terrorists as he unveiled a peace plan, which representatives of the United Nations and the international community rejected as insincere.
Anadolu reported that the 48 Iranians were let go in Doma, a suburb of Damascus, on Wednesday morning as the Syrian government began to move 2,130 prisoners, including women and children, to buses in order to free them. Among the Syrian government’s prisoners were Turkish nationals, the news agency reported.
There was no confirmation from the Syrian government.
Iranian political analyst Hamid Reza Taraghi said the exchange did not likely augur a fresh start between Assad and the rebels. Rather, he said, Syria had worked for the release of the hostages because Iran remains Assad’s chief backer in the Middle East.
"Syria as a strategic ally of Iran exchanged so many prisoners to make sure the abducted Iranians were freed," Taraghi said. "The Iranian citizens were so important that Syria had to release such a huge number of them."
Rebels captured the busload of Iranians last August outside of Damascus and claimed that they were part of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard force brought to Syria to help bolster Assad, but Iran insisted that the men were pilgrims visiting Shiite holy sites.
The Turkish relief agency IHH Humanitarian Aid Foundation was involved in much smaller prisoner releases last year in Syria, including "many Turkish nationals ... who were held captive in Syria as well as 28 Iranian nationals and 7 Syrians who were kept in prisons," Anadolu said.
Moghastim reported from Tehran and Parker from Beirut.