News / Middle East

    Syrian Rebels Free Iranians in Prisoner Exchange

    Iranians released by Syrian rebels arrive at a hotel in Damascus, Syria, January 9, 2013.
    Iranians released by Syrian rebels arrive at a hotel in Damascus, Syria, January 9, 2013.
    Selah Hennessy
    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.

    • Demonstrators hold banners during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, after Friday prayers in Kafranbel, near Idlib, Syria, January 11, 2013 in this picture provided by Shaam News Network.
    • A Free Syrian Army fighter uses binoculars near the Menagh military airport, in Aleppo's countryside, Syria, January 10, 2013.
    • A damaged car and buildings covered with snow are seen in the Jouret al Shayah area of Homs, Syria, January 10, 2013.
    • Residents evacuate their houses after being targeted by missiles fired by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo's al-Mashhad district, Syria, January 9, 2013.
    • Children sit next to a fire in Aleppo city, Syria, January 9, 2013.
    • Civilians and Free Syrian Army fighters gather at a site hit by a missile in Aleppo's al-Mashhad district, Syria, January 7, 2013.
    • People help a wounded person after a missile hit Aleppo's al-Mashhad district, Syria, January 7, 2013.
    • This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows Syrian President Bashar al-Assad waving to his supporters after speaking at the Opera House in central Damascus, Syria, January 6, 2013.
    • Free Syrian Army fighters, wounded during the battle to capture Taftanaz air base, receive treatment at a field hospital in northern Idlib, Syria, January 6, 2013.
    • A Free Syrian Army fighter feeds a cat in the old city of Aleppo, Syria, January 6, 2013.
    • A man rides his bicycle past buildings damaged by shelling in the old city of Aleppo, Syria, January 6, 2013.
    • A family crosses a street piled with garbage in Aleppo, Syria, January 5, 2013.
    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.
     
    Loading...
    Long history
     
    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.

    You May Like

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Before burial at overflowing cemeteries, unidentified dead being swapped for DNA, in case some day relatives come to learn their fate

    Russian Opposition Leader Sues Putin for Conflict of Interest

    Alexei Navalny tells VOA in exclusive interview why transfer of $2 billion from country’s wealth fund to company with ties to President Putin’s son-in-law triggered lawsuit

    Clinton, Sanders Fight for African American Votes

    Some African American lawmakers lining up to support Clinton in face of perceived surge by Sanders in race for Democratic nomination in presidential campaign

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Anonymous
    January 09, 2013 4:49 PM
    Great news, now release the rest of the captives Bashsar that are being held elsewhere, and many being abused.

    by: JKF from: Ottawa, Canada
    January 09, 2013 2:43 PM
    "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."
    I hope they also do address/move forward to actions wrt the issue of opening corridors/safe distribution areas for the delivery and distibution of humanitarian aid to the trapped civilians. The humanitarian crisis is horrendous, IAW UN, more help needs to reach the population; the entire situation is turning into genocide. Social problems will have negative impact for decades to come in Syria, and beyond.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Filli
    X
    Hamada Elsaram
    February 11, 2016 8:01 PM
    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video US Co-ed Selective Service Plan Stirs Controversy

    Young women may soon be required to register with the U.S. Selective Service System, the U.S. government agency charged with implementing a draft in a national emergency. Top Army and Marine Corps commanders told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that women should register, and a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring eligible women to sign up for the military draft. The issue is stirring some controversy, as VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from New York.
    Video

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Now that the Ebola epidemic has ended in West Africa, Zika has the world's focus. And, as Carol Pearson reports, health experts and governments are applying some of the lessons learned during the Ebola crisis in Africa to fight the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Illinois Voters Have Mixed Emotions on Obama’s Return to Springfield

    On the ninth anniversary of the launch of his quest for national office, President Barack Obama returned to Springfield, Illinois, to speak to the Illinois General Assembly, where he once served as state senator. His visit was met with mixed emotions by those with a front-row seat on his journey to the White House. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Heated Immigration Debate Limits Britain’s Refugee Response

    Compared to many other European states, Britain has agreed to accept a relatively small number of Syrian refugees. Just over a thousand have arrived so far -- and some are being resettled in remote corners of the country. Henry Ridgwell reports on why Britain’s response has lagged behind its neighbors.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.