(DAMASCUS, Syria) — The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a lopsided prisoner swap to win the release of 48 Iranians who were captured by rebels in his country last August.
It is believed that the exchange for approximately 2,130 captives, which included women, children and a few Turks, was the most extensive of the 22-month conflict.
The deal was brokered by the Qatari and Turkish governments as well as a humanitarian group from Turkey.
There is still no word what the Iranians were doing in Syria when their bus was ambushed by rebel fighters in August 2011. However, opposition forces and the U.S. State Department believe they were members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard sent to assist al-Assad’s military.
Tehran maintains that the Iranians were pilgrims with no ulterior motive.
Although opposition forces said some of the Iranians were killed at the time of their capture, Damascus insists that all the prisoners are accounted for.
Interestingly, al-Assad made no attempt to win the release of Syrian officers and soldiers currently in rebel hands, a situation the opposition says proves the Syrian dictator’s blind loyalty to Iran.
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN