Syrian rebels free Iranian prisoners

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iol pic wld Mideast Syria~6

AP

Free Syrian Army fighters look at a Syrian Army jet, not pictured, in Fafeen village, north of Aleppo province.

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 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 Shi’a 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 UN.

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. - Sapa-AP


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