BEIRUT — Rebels fighting to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday freed 48 Iranian hostages whom they’d been holding for five months in return for the government’s release of more than 2,000 mostly Syrian prisoners. It was the largest prisoner exchange to date of the country’s civil war.
The Iranians, who were taken to the Sheraton Hotel in Damascus, were to return to Tehran on Thursday, according to Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency, which cited the country’s deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian. Two Iranian engineers whom rebels took prisoner at a Syrian power plant are still being held, IRNA said.
The 2,130 freed Syrian prisoners reportedly were being allowed to return to their homes. Their identities weren’t immediately known. Among them were 76 women, as well as a handful of foreigners – four Turks and a Palestinian.
The exchange provided a rare moment of good news in a country in which, the United Nations now says, more than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011. But it was unlikely that it would lead to cease-fire negotiations between the government and the many rebel factions that are battling to unseat Assad.
The rebels and Assad have rejected a negotiated settlement, despite the efforts of the U.N.’s envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi. Brahimi, however, is expected to meet Thursday with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who began a two-day visit to Cairo late Wednesday. Salehi also is expected to meet with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
The prisoner exchange was negotiated by the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief – known as IHH – a Turkish aid group that has backing from the Turkish government and is best known for attempting to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in May 2010, an episode that ended with Israeli commandos storming a ship _ loaded with aid intended for Gazans _ and killing nine activists.
“We are very happy,” said Izzet Sahin, IHH’s coordinator for international relations. “Until the last minute, even in the early morning before the exchange, we weren’t sure it would happen. The fighting and the bombing were still going on.”
Sahin said the group had made inquiries about foreign journalists thought to be in the custody of the Syrian government, including Austin Tice, a McClatchy contributor who’s been missing in Syria since August.
“They did not respond to anything about him and the others, but we hope sooner or later we will get confirmation from the regime,” Sahin said. “We hope in coming negotiations they will be freed too.”
A rebel group known as the al Bara Brigade, one of the more than 600 rebel fighting units active in Syria, had taken the Iranians hostage in August. The brigade accused the Iranians of being members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and said they’d been sent to Damascus to help Assad battle the rebellion. In October, the brigade’s commander, Abdul Nasser Shumayr, threatened to begin killing the hostages unless the Syrian government stopped bombarding rebel-held areas and released prisoners.
Iran, however, said the group was made up of religious pilgrims and that they’d been kidnapped as they traveled from Damascus International Airport to a Shiite Muslim shrine in a suburb southeast of the capital.
Sahin said IHH had negotiated the prisoner exchange with Shumayr directly, not through the umbrella rebel group the Free Syrian Army. Shumayr’s al Bara Brigade operates in the East Ghouta area of eastern Damascus.
Opposition activists in different parts of the country said Wednesday that they were waiting to find out whom the government had released.
Some activists who’d been part of mass prisoner releases in the past said the government didn’t allow them to remain free for long, with some arrested again as soon as 12 hours after being released.
“I hope this will not happen, because we received the names of all the released people, and we will certainly follow up,” Sahin said. “If anything happens, it will be announced in national and international media.”
Nancy A. Youssef in Cairo and McClatchy special correspondent Joel Thomas in Istanbul contributed to this article.