Forty-eight Iranians held hostage by Syrian rebels for five months arrived in a Damascus hotel on Wednesday after being freed in a prisoner swap for more than 2,000 regime prisoners.
The Iranians, described by Tehran as "pilgrims" by Tehran and by the rebels as captured Revolutionary Guards members supporting Syrian forces, looked visibly exhausted, with some weeping, an AFP correspondent reported.
They were embraced by waiting Iranian diplomats and given white lilies.
The prisoner exchange on Wednesday was the biggest to occur in Syria's 21-month old conflict.
Several sources, including a rebel spokesperson and Iranian officials, said it was arranged through mediation by Turkey and Qatar.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement praising the efforts "by our friend and brother Syria and the assistance of Qatar and Turkey in freeing the pilgrims."
A Turkish aid group, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), said it spearheaded the swap of the Iranians for 2,139 detainees who had been prisoner of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, most of whom were Syrians but also a few foreigners including Turks.
"The negotiations involved us, Iran, the Syrian authorities and the armed opposition. The Turkish authorities also played a role, for which we are thankful.
This has led to the release of 2,139 prisoners," IHH vice president Ezzat Shahin told reporters in a news conference in the hotel.
Shahin said the exchange had been dangerous, as the Iranians were brought from the Eastern Ghuta region near Damascus where there was "fighting and bombing.”
None of the freed Iranians spoke to the media about their months-long ordeal.
Instead the Iranian ambassador to Damascus, Mohammed Reza Shibani, told reporters that the group was kidnapped in southwestern Damascus in early August as it traveled on the road linking the city's international airport with the Sayyida Zainab district, where an important Shiite Muslim shrine is located.
He portrayed the Iranians as "pilgrims" who still wanted to see the shrine before they left Syria.
The rebels who had captured them had accused some of them of being Iranian Revolutionary Guards members sent to Syria on a "reconnaissance" mission. They had shown the captives and military identification cards they had been carrying in an online video.
Shibani said the 48 freed men would stay for two days in the Damascus hotel, where they would be examined by doctors, before making their way back to Iran through arrangements still being worked out.
The ambassador thanked Syrian authorities for their "cooperation.”
"The talks were long and difficult. We extend our congratulations to the Iranian people for the return of their compatriots safe and sound to their homeland," he added.
Shibani noted, however, that "two Iranian engineers working for a power plant are still missing in Syria," possibly referring to seven Iranians grabbed in December 2011 near the central city of Homs, most of whom were released later.
No details were given in the media conference about the 2,139 regime prisoners in the swap.