Last updated: January 9, 2013 5:42 pm

Syrian rebels free Iranians in prisoner swap

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Syria struck a deal on Wednesday to release hundreds of prisoners in exchange for dozens of Iranians captured by rebels, Turkish negotiators said.

Turkey’s IHH, a humanitarian organisation with Islamist links that was a key part of a 2010 attempt to challenge the Israeli blockade of Gaza, said that 2,130 prisoners held by the Syrian government had been exchanged for 48 Iranians.

The Iranians, who were captured in August, arrived in a Damascus hotel on Wednesday afternoon, agencies reported.

“All 2,130 of [those held by Syrian authorities] have been released,” said Huseyin Oruc, IHH vice-president. “They have left for their homes.”

He said that roughly half of the former detainees had been released in Damascus, with the remainder being set free in other cities, including Aleppo, Tartus, Dera and Idlib.

There was no further confirmation that all the prisoners held by the Syrian authorities had been released. The Syrian government has yet to make an official comment on the exchange.

Rebels have claimed the Iranian men were affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and working in support of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Tehran insisted they were pilgrims visiting holy sites in Syria, but later said that some of them were retired members of the Revolutionary Guards.

Syria’s rebellion of mainly Sunni Muslims against a regime that belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, has drawn in powers from across the region’s sectarian faultline. Shia Iran is allied to the regime, whilst Sunni majority countries such as Turkey and Qatar have a close relationship with the rebels.

A Turkish official said that the IHH had taken the lead in the talks but its efforts had been backed by Ankara, which no longer has an ambassador in Damascus following its rupture with President Assad.

“The IHH is doing this [but] we have been involved throughout the whole process,” the official added. He argued that it was important to maintain caution while the exchange was not yet complete.

The Syrian authorities are believed to have detained tens of thousands in the course of the 22-month-long uprising, while kidnapping has become rampant in parts of the country where their control has eroded. Nine Lebanese Shia seized in Syria in May are still being held by rebels.

There have been some ad hoc initiatives to secure the release of people from each side, but the planned exchange on Wednesday is on a larger scale than anything seen before.

Speaking during a trip to Niger, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, confirmed that four Turkish nationals had been among those released by the Syrian authorities.

“This has been a successful initiative by Qatar and a Turkish non-governmental agency,” Mr Erdogan said, in a reference to IHH. “But I cannot say anything about what will happen from now on.” He added that the Turkish government had been in touch with the Syrian opposition as part of the process.

The IHH said two of the four Turks were long-term residents in Syria, one a Turk married to a Syrian and one a commercial seaman.

“This is the first time that so many civilians have been released from both sides. We hope it will encourage a better atmosphere and more releases,” said Mr Oruc, adding that Iran and Qatar were both “important actors” in the negotiation. “The Qataris are very influential with the Syrian people and the Iranians are very influential with the Syrian regime.”

The exchange came as efforts by the divided international community to find a negotiated solution to the Syria crisis remain stalled.

Lakhdar Brahimi, UN and Arab League envoy on Wednesday dismissed a recent speech by Mr Assad, saying in a BBC interview that it was “a repeat of previous initiatives that obviously did not work”, adding that it was “sectarian and one-sided.”

Russia however said that the speech showed Mr Assad’s readiness for dialogue.

Additional reporting by Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran

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