Syrian rebels free 48 Iranians in prisoner swap

The freed Iranians arrived at a Damascus hotel Wednesday, looking tired but in good health, a media witness said. The 2,130 captives of the Syrian government are beginning to be released.

TEHRAN, Iran — Syrian rebels freed 48 Iranians held captive since August, Iranian state TV reported Wednesday, part of what appeared to be the first major prisoner swap of the civil war.

The deal — reportedly coordinated by a Turkish Islamic aid group — will also involve the release of more than 2,000 held by Bashar Assad's regime, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Anadolu said a group of people held in the Syrian Interior Ministry building in Damascus had been released and were escorted onto buses. The group included women and children, it said, but gave no further details.

The exchange came just days after Assad vowed to press ahead with the fight against rebel fighters even as battles expand in the capital Damascus.

Iran, however, is one of Assad's main backers, and the hostages were a major bargaining chip for opposition factions trying to bring down his regime. Rebels accused the Iranian captives of links to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, but Iran has denied the claims and described the hostages as pilgrims visiting Shiite religious sites.

Anadolu Agency said the aid group was coordinating the exchange for 2,130 prisoners. The aid group says four Turks are among prisoners to be freed.

The 48 Iranians released by Syrian rebels arrived Wednesday at the Sheraton hotel in central Damascus , a news media witness said.

The men were accompanied by the Iranian ambassador to Syria and arrived in six small buses, looking tired but in good health.

The Iranians were kidnapped outside the Syrian capital in August. The rebels had threatened to kill the captives unless the Syrian regime halted military operations against the opposition.

Bulent Yildirim, head of the Turkish aid agency, told news media by telephone from Damascus shortly beforehand that the release of 2,130 civilian prisoners — most of whom are Syrian but also include Turks and other foreign citizens — had begun.

The reported deal would mark the first major prisoner swap since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. More than 60,000 people have been killed, according to the U.N.

In a speech Sunday, Assad struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands to step down and saying he is ready to talk — but only with those "who have not betrayed Syria." He also vowed to continue the battle "as long as there is one terrorist left," a term the government uses for rebels.

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser and Barbara Surk contributed to this story.

_

MSN News on Facebook and Twitter

Stay up to date on breaking news and current events.

Friend us on Facebook: www.facebook.com/news.msn

Follow us on Twitter: www.twitter.com/msnnews