Syria Begins Prisoner Exchange as More Than 2,000 Freed

Syria’s government and rebel militias began the biggest prisoner exchange in the 22-month civil war, a deal built around the freeing of 48 Iranians including retired members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The release of the Iranians, captured by opposition fighters as they arrived for a pilgrimage five months ago, was followed by the start of the freeing by President Bashar al-Assad’s government of 2,130 civilians, Turkey’s state-run Anatolia news agency said today. Some are viewed as insurgents by the government.

The deal was mediated by Turkey and Qatar, Anatolia said. At least four Turks were among those released, it said.

“It is the largest prisoner swap in Syria so far,” said Osman Atalay, a senior official of the Turkish Islamic charity group IHH, which helped negotiate the deal. “The civilians will be released in groups today and tomorrow; all Iranians have been set free.” More than 1,000 have left prison so far, Bulent Yildirim, the group’s head, told Anatolia from Damascus.

Prisoner releases on a much smaller scale have been reported during the war, with a Syrian rebel group freeing two of the 11 Lebanese Shiites it abducted last year while demanding that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah apologize for his support of the Assad regime. Human rights groups like London-based Amnesty International have accused both sides in Syria of unlawfully killing prisoners.

‘Group Effort’

The agreement was a “group effort” and did not involve Syria’s armed forces, Khalaf al-Meftah, Syria’s deputy information minister, told Iran’s state-run Arabic-language Al-Alam news channel today. Iran is Assad’s closest ally.

The 48 Iranians handed over to the Iranian ambassador in Damascus are “healthy” and in good shape, Hassan Qashqavi, Iranian deputy foreign minister, told the state-run Mehr news agency. Press TV showed them being handed bunches of white flowers as they entered a Damascus hotel.

IHH said it had sought to free civilians including a Palestinian journalist, Bashar Fahmi Kadumi, who was working for the U.S.-funded Iraqi television station al-Hurra, Anatolia said. Kadumi went missing shortly after crossing into Syria from Turkey on Aug. 20 to cover the war in the northern city of Aleppo. Yildirim said by phone that Kadumi’s situation and whereabouts aren’t yet clear.

Turkey, a former Assad ally, is now backing the mostly Sunni Muslim rebel groups fighting to oust him. The conflict, which began in March 2011, has left about 60,000 people dead, according to the United Nations.

At least 20 people have been killed across Syria today, including seven in Damascus and its suburbs, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said.

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