Weeping freed Iranians appear in Syria capital

Forty-eight Iranians held hostage by Syrian rebels for five months arrived in a Damascus hotel after being freed in a prisoner swap for more than 2,000 people held by the regime.

The Iranians, described as "pilgrims" by Tehran and by the rebels and Washington as captured Revolutionary Guards members supporting Syrian forces, looked visibly exhausted, with some weeping, an AFP correspondent reported.

They were embraced by waiting Iranian diplomats and given white lilies.

The prisoner exchange yesterday was the biggest to occur in Syria's 21-month old conflict.

Several sources, including a rebel spokesman and Iranian officials, said it was arranged through mediation by Turkey and Qatar.

The Iranian foreign ministry issued a statement praising the efforts "by our friend and brother Syria and the assistance of Qatar and Turkey in freeing the pilgrims."

A Turkish aid group, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), said it spearheaded the swap of the Iranians for 2,139 detainees who had been held by President Bashar al-Assad's regime, most of whom were Syrians but including a few foreigners such as Turks.

"The negotiations involved us, Iran, the Syrian authorities and the armed opposition. The Turkish authorities also played a role, for which we are thankful. This has led to

the release of 2,139 prisoners," IHH vice president Ezzat Shahin told reporters in a news conference in the hotel.

Shahin said the exchange had been dangerous, as the Iranians were brought from the Eastern Ghuta region near Damascus where there was "fighting and bombing".

None of the freed Iranians spoke to the media about their months-long ordeal.

Instead the Iranian ambassador to Damascus, Mohammed Reza Shibani, told reporters that the group was kidnapped in0 southwestern Damascus in early August as it travelled on the road linking the city's international airport with the Sayyida

Zainab district, where an important Shiite Muslim shrine is located.

He portrayed the Iranians as "pilgrims" who still wanted to see the shrine before they left Syria.

However, the US State Department disputed that description.

"We note that most of the Iranians who had been captive are members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, adding it was "another example of how Iran continues to provide guidance, expertise, personnel, technical capabilities to the Syrian regime".

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