A group of 48 Iranians held hostage by Syrian rebels are expected to fly back to Iran Thursday after being freed in a prisoner swap with President Bashar al-Assad's government.
They were freed Wednesday in exchange for 2,130 prisoners, mostly Syrian, in what appears to be the first major prisoner swap during the Syria's nearly two-year-old civil war.
Iran's ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Riza Shibani, greeted the Iranian former captives with hugs and flowers when they arrived at the Sheraton hotel in Damascus.
Syrian rebels claim the Iranian men are linked to Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and were captured while on a "reconnaissance mission." Tehran has denied that, saying they were pilgrims visiting Shi'ite religious sites in Syria.
Also Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi met with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby in Cairo to discuss the crisis in Syria. Salehi is expected to hold further talks on the situation with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and United Nations-Arab League envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.
Iran remains President Assad's strongest regional ally while many Sunni Arab states and neighboring Turkey have turned against him and are actively seeking his ouster.
Brahimi is scheduled to travel to Geneva for talks Friday with officials from the United States and Russia on finding a political solution to the crisis.
The bloodshed has left more than 60,000 people dead since March 2011.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.
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