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Syria rebels trade 48 Iranian hostages for 2,000 imprisoned civilians

Khaled Al-Hariri / Reuters

Iranians released by Syrian rebels arrive at a hotel in Damascus on Wednesday. The 48 were released by Syrian rebels in exchange for the more than 2,000 civilian prisoners held by the Syrian government.

Syrian rebels freed 48 Iranian hostages on Wednesday in exchange for the release of more than 2,000 civilian prisoners held by the Syrian government, according to the head of a Turkish aid agency that helped broker the deal.

The Syrian rebel al-Baraa brigade seized the Iranians in early August and initially threatened to kill them, saying they were members of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sent to fight for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Islamic Republic, one of Assad's closest allies, denied this, saying they were Shiite Muslim pilgrims visiting shrines. Iran asked Turkey and Qatar to use their connections with Syrian insurgents to help secure their release.

"The 48 Iranians have been released and are being taken to Damascus, accompanied by Iranian and Syrian officials," Bulent Yildirim, head of humanitarian aid agency IHH, told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.

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The group arrived at the Sheraton hotel in central Damascus looking tired but in good health, a witness said. The men were accompanied by the Iranian ambassador to Syria and arrived in six small buses.

Yildirim said the release of 2,130 civilian prisoners, most of them Syrian but also including Turks and other foreign citizens, had begun in return. Two state-run Iranian television channels also reported that 48 Iranians had been freed in a swap.

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