Syria rebels free 48 Iranians in prisoner exchange

BEIRUT — Syrian opposition fighters Wednesday released 48 Iranians captured in August in exchange for the freeing of at least 2,130 detainees held by President Bashar Assad's government, in the largest prisoner swap of the country's civil war, officials said.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar Brahimi, the special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and Arab League, denounced the peace plan Assad unveiled this week as sectarian and one-sided, offering little hope that a diplomatic solution to the country's violence will be found any time soon.

The Iranians were let go in Duma, a suburb of Damascus, the Syrian capital, as the government began to move its detainees, including women and children, to buses for their release, Iranian and Turkish state media reported. Among the government's prisoners were Turkish nationals, according to Turkey's official Anadolu news agency.

Syrian activists confirmed that the government had released hundreds of prisoners. The armed rebel group Al Baraa Brigade, which had kidnapped the Iranians and threatened to kill them if there was not an exchange, celebrated the deal on its Facebook page, confirming the release of Syrian detainees from around the country.

"Today, with the granting of success from God, the operation of the release of the prisoners in exchange for arrested Syrians was completed, thus removing the mask from this criminal regime," the rebel group, a moderate Islamist militia operating in the Damascus countryside, said in a statement.

Iranian television showed the 48 released Iranians grinning, flashing victory signs and receiving flowers from Shiite Muslim clerics at a hotel in Damascus.

"The release of the abducted Iranians is the result of long and patient work in cooperation with Syrian officials and the assistance of Turkish officials," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told state television. He said two Iranian engineers were still being held hostage in Syria.

A Turkish Islamic relief group supervised the exchange, reported Anadolu, which credited Turkey and Qatar with mediating the deal. There was no confirmation from the Syrian government.

Most of the freed Syrian detainees were thought to be civilians and activists. They hailed from around the country, Al Baraa Brigade said, a statement probably meant to indicate national solidarity in a war where the fighting factions and their agendas are highly localized.

Iranian political analyst Hamid Reza Taraghi said the exchange did not augur a fresh start between Assad and the rebels, but rather that 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 Iranians last summer on a bus outside Damascus and said they were part of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard force brought to Syria to help bolster Assad. 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 seven Syrians who were kept in prisons," Anadolu reported.

The exchange marked a rare break from the brutality of the 21-month-old civil war, which has seen Assad order airstrikes and shell cities as rebels carried out bombings and assassinations.

Assad delivered a rare speech Sunday denigrating the rebel groups as terrorists as he unveiled a peace plan that the United Nations and international community rejected as insincere. Assad described a complicated plan for a transition to national elections, making it clear he was calling the shots in Syria and would not cede power.

Brahimi, speaking Wednesday to the BBC, expressed frustration over Assad's refusal to agree to an internationally brokered plan for a transitional government involving the opposition and Assad supporters.

"What has been said this time is not really different. It is perhaps even more sectarian, more one-sided," Brahimi said. "Syrians are talking past each other, speaking two totally different languages."

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran. Special correspondents Nabih Bulos and Alaa Hassan in Beirut contributed to this report.

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