Syria frees 2,130 captives to rebels in exchange for 48 Iranian prisoners
Syrian government and the rebels fighting against it carried out a massive
prisoner swap Wednesday, with the government releasing 2,130 Syrian and Turkish
captives in exchange for 48 Iranians who had been seized by rebel forces.
The swap appeared to be the largest yet in the nearly two-year-old conflict,
which has left up to 60,000 dead. The deal was brokered by the
governments of Qatar and Turkey. A Turkish humanitarian group that has helped in
previous exchanges facilitated the prisoners’ release.
Critics of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said the
lopsided deal highlights how much he is influenced by Iran, one of the Syrian
government’s last remaining allies. They noted that Assad did not
insist on the release of any of the hundreds of Syrian soldiers who have been
captured by the rebels, focusing instead on the Iranian prisoners.
“Assad proved he is an Iranian puppet because he agreed to release over 2,000
in return for 48 Iranians,” said Louay Moqdad, a Free Syrian Army spokesman. “He
did not care about Syrian officers who are also detained with us.”
Moqdad said dozens of women and children were among the prisoners released by
It remains unclear what the Iranians were doing in Syria when they were
captured. The group was kidnapped in August near Sayida Zainab, a Shiite Muslim
shrine in southern Damascus frequented by religious pilgrims.
Rebel commanders involved in the kidnapping said at the time that the Iranians were Revolutionary Guard personnel, sent to help
Assad in the fight against the opposition. But Iranian government officials
maintained that the Iranians were pilgrims and had not come to Syria in any
The Free Syrian Army unit involved in the kidnapping released a video that
showed a handful of Revolutionary Guard identity cards that allegedly had been
confiscated from the captives.
Shortly after the video was posted online, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar
Salehi told an Iranian news agency that the group included some retired members
of the guard and the Iranian army. But he insisted the entire group was in Syria
for a private visit.
The Iranians were released Wednesday in the Damascus suburb of Douma,
Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported. Footage aired by Iran’s Press TV showed
them arriving at the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus in white minivans, smiling as
they hugged and kissed officials from the Iranian Embassy.
Despite rebel claims that some of the hostages had been killed, an embassy
official said all 48 hostages were doing well, according to Fars News, a
semiofficial Iranian news agency affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard
Corps. “All 48 of the pilgrims are in good health and will soon return to Iran,”
the official said.
The captives released by the Syrian government were bused from the Interior
Ministry building to the Palace of Justice in central Damascus, where a judge
was signing their release papers, Moqdad said. The captives were then expected
to be brought to different security facilities around the city and released, he