BEIRUT Rebels fighting to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday freed 48 Iranian hostages they had held for five months in return for the government's release of more than 2,000 mostly Syrian prisoners. It was the largest such exchange to date in the country's civil war.
The Iranians were taken to the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus and were to return to Tehran today, according to Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency, which cited the country's deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian.
Two Iranian engineers taken prisoner by rebels at a Syrian power plant are still being held, IRNA said.
The 2,130 freed Syrian prisoners reportedly were being allowed to return to their homes. Their identities weren't immediately known. Among them were 76 women, as well as four Turks and a Palestinian.
The exchange provided a rare moment of good news in a country where the United Nations now says more than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011. But it is unlikely to lead to cease-fire talks between the government and the many rebel factions battling to unseat Assad.
Both sides have rejected a negotiated settlement, despite the efforts of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
The prisoner exchange was negotiated by the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief known as IHH a Turkish aid group that has backing from the Turkish government. It is best known for attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in May 2010, an episode that ended with Israeli commandos storming a ship loaded with aid intended for Gazans and killing nine activists.
"We are very happy," said Izzet Sahin, IHH's coordinator for international relations. "Until the last minute we weren't sure it would happen. The fighting and the bombing were still going on."
Sahin said the group had made inquiries about foreign journalists thought to be in the custody of the Syrian government, including Austin Tice, a McClatchy Newspapers contributor who has been missing in Syria since August.
"They did not respond to anything about him and the others, but we hope sooner or later we will get confirmation from the regime," Sahin said. "We hope in coming negotiations they will be freed, too."
The al-Bara Brigade, one of more than 600 rebel fighting units active in Syria, took the Iranians hostage in August, accusing them of being members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and saying they were sent to Damascus to help Assad battle the rebellion.
Iran, however, said they were religious pilgrims kidnapped as they traveled to a Shiite Muslim shrine southeast of the Syrian capital.