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Syria: Rebels free Iranians, talks due in Geneva

Syria rebels have freed 48 Iranians seized last year in exchange for numerous opposition prisoners held by President Bashar Assad's regime. The Iranians appeared in Damascus Wednesday - the other releases remain unclear.

Iranians released by Syrian rebels arrive at a hotel in Damascus January 9, 2013. Forty eight Iranians released by Syrian rebels in exchange for the release of more than 2,000 civilian prisoners held by the Syrian government arrived at the Sheraton hotel in central Damascus on Wednesday, a Reuters witness said. The men were accompanied by the Iranian ambassador to Syria and arrived in six small buses, looking tired but in good health. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

Syrien Freilassung von iranischen Gefangenen

The Islamic-Turkish aid organization IHH, which helped broker the deal, said the release of the 2,130 civilian prisoners by the regime of President Bashar Assad had begun. Among them were several Turkish nationals and 73 women.

By late Wednesday, Syria's state media had not remarked on the prisoner exchange, first reported on by Turkish and Iranian media.

The news agency Reuters said the 48 Iranians arrived at a Damascus hotel in six small buses, looking tired but in good health. They did not speak to reporters. Iran's ambassador in Damascus, Mohammad Riza Shibani, greeted them with flowers.

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Major prisoner swap in Syria

An Iranian embassy spokesman in Damascus told the semi-official Iranian news agency Fars that the "Iranians were free and would soon return to Iran."

The Iranians were abducted last August by the Syrian rebel al-Baraa brigade. It accused them of being members of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sent to fight for Assad.

Iran, a close Assad ally, denied this, saying they were Shiite Muslim pilgrims visiting shrines in Syria. Qatar subsequently persuaded the rebel group not to go ahead with its threat to kill its Iranian captives.

Brahimi to chair talks Friday

Senior Russian and US officials are to meet for a second time on Friday in Geneva with the United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, according to Russia's foreign ministry. They first met in December.

The ministry said Russia's deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov would confer with US Undersecretary of State William Burns in an "exchange of ideas without preconditions."

The scheduled meeting will follow a rare speech given by Assad in Damascus last Sunday in which he spoke of a dialogue to end Syria's two years of bloodshed, but only with those "who have not betrayed Syria."

His remarks were widely dismissed as intransigence by Western powers, but the Russia on Wednesday urged the West to pay more attention to Assad's approach.

The main, internationally recognized opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition based out of Cairo, dismissed Assad's offer on Sunday and reiterated its pre-condition that the president step down before any talks could be considered.

Brahimi told the British broadcaster BBC on Wednesday that Assad's proposal was "very much a repeat of previous initiatives that obviously did not work. It's not really different and perhaps even more sectarian and one-sided."

"In Syria, in particular, I think that what people are saying is that a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long. So the change has to be real. It has to be real, and I think that President Assad could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather than resisting it," Brahimi added.

The United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed since March 2011 when an uprising began against Assad's rule.

Rebels control swathes of northern and eastern Syria, but Assad's administration is still entrenched in Damascus and controls much of the highly populated southwest.

ipj/dr (dpa, Reuters, AFP)

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