Syrian rebels free 48 Iranians in prisoner swap

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.

In this Sunday Jan. 6, 2013 photo Syrian rebel fighters take their positions on the frontline of the ongoing battle for the military airport in Taftanaz, Syria. Syrian President Bashar Assad, in a rare speech Sunday, outlined his own vision for ending the country's conflict with a plan that would keep him in power. He also dismissed any chance of dialogue with the armed opposition and called on Syrians to fight what he called "murderous criminals." (AP Photo/Mustafa Karali)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — 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 agency 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.

Turkey's state-run agency Anadolu Agency said the aid group was coordinating the prisoner exchange for 2,130 prisoners. The aid group says four Turks are among prisoners to be freed.

Iran's state-run Press TV also gave no other immediate details on the movements of the freed Iranians.

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.

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.

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Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this story.
Associated Press
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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