Syrian rebels freed 48 Iranians held captive since August, Iranian state TV reported today, part of what appeared to be the first major prisoner swap of the civil war. The deal—reportedly coordinated by a Turkish Islamic aid group—will also involve the release of more than 2,000 held by Bashar al-Assad's regime, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported. Anadolu said a group of people held in the Syrian Interior Ministry building in Damascus had been released and were escorted onto buses. The group included women and children, it said, but gave no further details.
Iran is one of Assad's main backers and the hostages were a major bargaining chip for opposition factions trying to bring down his regime. Rebels accused the Iranian captives, who were kidnapped outside Damascus in August, of links to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, but Iran has denied the claims and described the hostages as pilgrims visiting Shiite religious sites. Anadolu reports that the exchange involved 2,130 prisoners in total, including four Turks.