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Syrian rebels release Iranian captives

Syrian rebels have released 48 Iranians who they abducted in Damascus last August, according to Turkish and Iranian media. In exchange, President Bashar Assad's government was to release 2,130 opposition prisoners.

The 48 Iranian hostages - who the Syrian opposition had contended were members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps - were to return to their home country on Wednesday, five months after they had been kidnapped in Damascus.

Tehran had maintained that the group of Iranians were pilgrims visiting a Shiite pilgrimage site in Syria.

In exchange for the captives, the Syrian government was to release 2,130 prisoners.

By late Wednesday, the Syrian government had not referred publicly to the prisoner swap and the whereabouts of the prisoners held by Assad's government were not immediately known.

The freed Iranians arrived at a Damascus hotel in six small buses (pictured above), looking tired but in good health. They did not speak to reporters, said the news agency Reuters.

Kidnappings frequent

The August kidnapping of Iranian nationals was the not the first to occur in Syria. Dozens of pilgrims had also been targeted in similar kidnappings between December 2011 and February 2012. Most were later freed.

Iran has remained one of Assad's staunchest allies during the Syrian civil war, which has ravaged the country for nearly two years.

Meanwhile, as fighting raged on in the war-torn country, Syria's information minister criticized international leaders for their lack of cooperation with Syrian President Assad.

They rejected his latest proposal "before even having the time to translate it," said Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi late on Tuesday at an emergency Cabinet meeting.

Assad had spoken of a peace plan during a rare speech on Sunday which would have kept him power.

Syria's western-recognized opposition National Coalition also rejected the proposal.

The armed conflict has plunged the Middle Eastern country into chaos, driving waves of refugees into neighboring Turkey and Lebanon. The United Nations estimates that 600,000 Syrian nationals have fled the country.

According to the latest figures by the United Nations, over 60,000 have died since fighting broke out between President Assad's military and opposition forces.

kms/ipj (AFP, Reuters, dapd, dpa)