A group of 48 Iranians held hostage by Syrian rebels since early August has arrived at a Damascus hotel after being freed for more than 2,000 prisoners detained by President Bashar al-Assad's government.
Wednesday's exchange, brokered by Turkey and Qatar, was carried out from several cities across Syria, including Damascus, Latakia, Homs, Idlib and Aleppo. It appears to be the first major prisoner swap of the country's nearly two-year-old civil war.
A Turkish aid organization, Humanitarian Relief Foundation, coordinated the exchange and was involved in the months of diplomacy leading up to it. Vice President Huseyin Oruc said among the 2,130 mostly Syrian prisoners freed are four Turkish nationals and a Palestinian. He said the swap went smoothly.
“There is no problem. [The exchange] has been completed. Forty-eight Iranians have reached Damascus. And the Syrians are getting to their families,” Oruc said.
Turkish media reported that more than 70 women were among those released by the Syrian government, which has not officially confirmed the deal.
Iran's ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Riza Shibani, greeted the 48 Iranian former captives with hugs and flowers when they arrived at the Sheraton Damascus Hotel. They did not speak to reporters.
Regional power play
The Syrian rebel al-Baraa brigade, part of the Free Syrian Army, seized the Iranians from a bus in Damascus in early August and initially threatened to kill them unless Assad's government freed Syrian opposition detainees and stopped shelling civilian areas.
Qatar, heeding a request from Tehran, urged the group not to carry out the threat.
The rebels claim the men are linked to Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and were taken while on a "reconnaissance mission." Tehran has denied that, saying they were pilgrims visiting Shi'ite religious sites in Syria.
Iran’s Foreign Minister has said some of those kidnapped were once members of the IRGC but are now retired.
The Islamic Republic remains President Assad's strongest regional ally while many Sunni Arab states and neighboring Turkey have turned against him and are actively seeking his ouster.
Oruc said the exchange negotiations included Iran, Qatar, Turkey and the Syrians. He said his organization has more work to do, freeing prisoners on both sides of the conflict.
“You know there are thousands of people still in prisons in Syria. And we are conducting this humanitarian diplomacy to release all civilians from the side of the opposition and from the regime, from the government,” Oruc said.
David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s in Britain, said the Syrian government has a long history of taking political prisoners and those numbers have increased rapidly since the current conflict began.
Wednesday’s hostage exchange is significant, he said, but many more are still in captivity.
“We don't have exact figures on how many people have been rounded up in the [last] 18 months, so I think it's important to caveat that there are tens of thousands, if not more, prisoners still being held by the Syrian regime at the moment,” Hartwell said.
The exchange came just days after Assad vowed to continue fighting rebels despite international pressure to end the bloodshed that has left more than 60,000 people dead since March 2011.
Officials from the United States and Russia will meet Friday in Geneva with United Nations-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, for further talks on finding a political solution to the Syria crisis.
VOA's Mark Snowiss contributed to this report from Washington.