DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian rebels on Wednesday freed 48 Iranians held captive since August in exchange for the release of more than 2,000 detainees in the first major prisoner swap of the country's civil war, officials said.
The exchange, which was brokered by Iran, Turkey and Qatar, came just days after Assad vowed to press ahead with the fight against rebels despite international pressure to end the bloodshed that has left more than 60,000 people dead.
Iran is one of Assad's main backers and the Iranians, who were seized outside Damascus in August, were a major bargaining chip for factions trying to bring down his regime.
The group of 48 men arrived at the Sheraton hotel in several vans escorted by Syrian security forces. Iran's ambassador in Damascus, Mohammad Riza Shibani and several Iranian clerics greeted each one with a white rose.
Rebels claimed the captives were linked to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, but Tehran has denied that, saying the men were pilgrims visiting Shiite religious sites in Syria.
Shibani said their release was a result of elaborate and "tough" negotiations, but he did not provide any other details of the deal. The Syrian government, which rarely gives details on security related matters, had no official comment and it was not clear what prompted the exchange.
"The conditions placed on the deal were difficult, but with much work ... we succeeded in securing this release," he said. "I hope such tragedies will not be repeated."
The rebels had threatened to kill the captives unless the Syrian regime halted military operations against the opposition.
A spokesman for a Turkish Islamic aid group that helped coordinate the release said the regime had agreed to release 2,130 people in exchange for the Iranians.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed the swap, but expressed regret that many remain locked up by the Syrian government.
"Let's hope that they may be released as well and let's hope that the process is beneficial for all," Erdogan said during a visit to Niger.
He said the deal was brokered with the help of a Turkish and a Qatari aid organization, and added that Turkey had been talking with the rebels during the negotiations.
"The rebels had made some preliminary preparations for the release, but we did not know what the Syrian reaction would be," Erdogan said.
"In the end, it seems that they agreed," he said, adding that four Turks and "a number of Palestinians" were among the prisoners released by the Syrian government.
There were conflicting reports about how many of the prisoners in Syrian custody had been freed. Speaking in Istanbul, Umit Sonmez of the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief said the 48 Iranians were handed over to aid workers soon after the Syrian regime let a group go.
Sonmez said the Syrian prisoners included "ordinary people or friends or relatives of the rebels."
"This is the largest prisoner exchange to date," Sonmez said. "We are pleased that people from all sides who were held and victimized have finally been freed."
Sonmez said the foundation coordinated the negotiations.
"Turkey and Qatar, who have influence over the rebels, spoke with the rebels. They also spoke with Iran. Iran for its part spoke with Syria."
Turkey's state-run agency Anadolu Agency also said a group of people, including women and children, held in the Syrian Interior Ministry building in Damascus had been released and were escorted onto buses. The report could not immediately be confirmed.
Bulent Yildirim, the head of the Turkish aid organization, told Anadolu in Damascus that 1,000 people have been released so far, including 74 women and a number of children between the ages of 13 and 15.
Some photographs released from the aid organization showed a group women lined up against a wall, apparently waiting to be released, inside a building. Most appeared to be hiding their faces from the camera. Another showed a group of men, their heads shaven, standing in a room.
The deal marks the first major prisoner swap since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011.
Regime forces and rebels have exchanged prisoners before, most arranged by mediators in the suburbs of Damascus and in northern Syria, but the numbers ranged from two to 20 prisoners. The Syrian Red Crescent also has arranged exchanges of bodies from both sides.
In a speech Sunday, Assad struck a defiant tone, ignoring international demands to step down and saying he is ready to talk — but only with those "who have not betrayed Syria."
He outlined his vision for a peace initiative that would keep him in power to oversee a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new government. But he also vowed to continue the battle "as long as there is one terrorist left," a term the government uses for rebels.
The opposition rejected his offer, which also drew harsh international criticism.
Syria's Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said countries like the United States and its Western allies that have called on Assad to step down since the start of the uprising have dismissed the president's initiative "before even having the time to translate it."
Al-Zoubi was speaking in Damascus late Tuesday after an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the proposal.
Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this story.