Prisoner swap: 2,130 Syrians for 48 Iranian 'pilgrims'
The Syrian government has yet to confirm the release of the Iranian hostages.
A Reuters witness saw the Iranian hostages arrive at the Sheraton hotel in central Damascus on Wednesday. They were accompanied by the Iranian ambassador to Syria and looked tired but in good health.
Rebels claim the hostages were carrying out covert operations for the Syrian government, while Iran maintains they are retired members of the armed forces who were on a pilgrimage south-east of Damascus.
The Free Syria Army, who captured the group of ‘pilgrims’ back in August, claimed they had evidence that the hostages belonged to the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guardsand had come to Syria to "serve the regime.”
Turkish aid organization, Humanitarian Relief Foundation (HRF) reported on the prison exchange on Wednesday morning and said the Assad government was preparing to release 2,130 'civilians.'
“Most of the prisoners to be swapped are Syrian citizens in exchange for Iranians, and there are a few Turks as well," IHH member Osman Atalay told Reuters. The non-profit group has previously been involved in the release of Turkish and Syrian citizens in Syria.
Turkish state news said that the hostage handover deal was brokered by Turkey and Qatar.
Iran has previously stated that it has not sent any military enforcements into Syria and that President Assad has not requested military aid from them.
“This is the result of months of civil diplomacy carried out by our organization,” said IHH spokesperson Serkan Nergis.
An image grab taken from a video uploaded on YouTube on October 4, 2012 and released by Al-Baraa Brigade shows an unidentified Syrian rebel standing in front of 30 hostages who the brigade said are Iranian prisoners at an unidentified location in Syria. (AFP Photo/YouTube)
A handout picture released by the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH) shows Syrian prisoners who were released by the Syrian regime near Aleppo in northern Syria on January 9, 2013 (AFP Photo / IHH)
Iranian Muslim Shiite clerics and other officials greet Iranian men who had been held hostage by Syrian rebels since early August as they arrive at a hotel in Damascus after being freed in a prisoner swap on January 9, 2013 (AFP Photo / Louai Beshara)
An Iranian man who had been held hostage by Syrian rebels since early August makes the victory sign as he arrives with others at a hotel in Damascus after being freed in a prisoner swap on January 9, 2013 (AFP Photo / Louai Beshara)