Rebels swap 48 Iranians for 2,130 Syrians


Syrian rebels yesterday freed 48 Iranians seized last August in exchange for the release of 2,130 prisoners.

Iran’s ambassador to Syria Mohamed Riza Shibani confirmed that the Iranians had arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in the diplomatic quarter of the capital as Syrian women and children were being freed at the interior ministry.

The Iranians were taken hostage while en route to the airport following a pilgrimage to a Shia shrine on the outskirts of Damascus.

Sunni rebels holding them claimed they were members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards who were conducting reconnaissance in Syria to help the government crush the rebellion.

Umit Sonmez, spokesman for the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights which brokered the trade, said the Syrian prisoners were “ordinary people or friends and relatives of rebels”. Some Turks were also set to be freed by the government.

Prisoner exchange

The prisoner exchange anticipated tomorrow’s meeting in Geneva between UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, US assistant secretary of state William Burns and his Russian counterpart Mikhail Bogdanov, who have been asked to draft a deal based on an accord reached in June by the West and Russia.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Brahimi said resolving the crisis “depends on the actors, whether they are ready to co-operate”. He expressed disappointment in president Bashar al-Assad’s latest proposal which “was very much a repeat of previous [failed] initiatives” and “is perhaps even more sectarian and one-sided.” Mr Assad has not yet accepted that he will have to step down and would like to stand again in 2014, Mr Brahimi said.

“I think [he] could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather than resisting it.”

He said none of the sides involved in the conflict are prepared to move forward. “This is why a lot of efforts have to be taken by a lot of people” to break the deadlock.

If they fail, “Syria will be destroyed, it will be completely destroyed”.

In reply to Mr Assad’s proposal, the opposition Syrian National Coalition put forward a nine-point plan involving the formation of an interim government to operate in “liberated areas”. Mr Assad would step down, “yielding to the people’s demands”, and the interim government would assume executive and legislative powers.

The present government, parliament, security agencies and the military’s most loyal units, the Fourth Armoured Division and Republican Guard, would be dissolved. Political prisoners would be released. The army would return to barracks under an agreement with the rebel Free Syrian Army. A national conference would convene and establish a transitional government.

The coalition’s plan coincided with a call for the creation of a shadow government in rebel-held areas by US president Barack Obama’s former regional adviser Frederick Hoff.

The plan can be expected to be dismissed by Mr Assad.