The Syrian government freed 2,130 imprisoned rebels Wednesday, in exchange for 48 Iranians who had been identified as allies of the government and captured by rebel forces in Damascus, reported a Turkish nongovernmental organization.
The IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which took part in the negotiation process, reported that 76 women and several children were among the prisoners released by the government. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces also held four Turkish nationals captive, two of whom were released, IHH President Bulent Yildirim told the Turkish Anadolu news agency Wednesday.
“We are now going to an area where other prisoners would be released,” Yildirim said. “We have set up an operation center here under the control of IHH. Talks continue under the mediation of Turkey and Qatar. Swap of prisoners began in several locations of Damascus on Wednesday.”
The prisoner exchange Wednesday was the largest since the 21-monthlong civil war began.
The Iranians were captured in the Syrian capital of Damascus last August by rebel groups, who claimed they belonged to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, reported Al-Jazeera. Iran, which is one of Syria’s major allies, said that the captives were merely pilgrims visiting a Shi’ite Muslim shrine.
Syrian rebels showed videos of Iranian military identification cards they say the Iranians had on them.
News of the swap dominated Iranian news websites Wednesday.
Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency said that the Iranians, which it also described as “pilgrims,” were “abducted by terrorists in Syria.” It reiterated claims that they were traveling from the Damascus airport to the shrine of Hazrat Zainab.
Louai al Miqdad, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said the prisoner exchange was a huge victory for the rebels.
“It’s a huge victory for us. It’s a huge victory for the revolution. And it’s a huge victory for the Syrian people,” Miqdad told CNN.
“What we do today is a big victory for the Free Syrian Army,” he added. “It shows the whole world that Bashar al-Assad only understands the language of force. Today, we released them by our hand.”
Yildirim said the prisoners were in poor condition at the time of their release by Syrian authorities.
“Captivity is a hard thing,” he told the New York Times. “I saw young women crying, many people lost a lot of weight, and there were also many sick people.”
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