Syria barters prisoners for Russian bodies

The Syrian government has begun releasing 169 prisoners in exchange for the return of the bodies of five Russian soldiers killed when their helicopter was downed, a lawyer said Wednesday.

“On Tuesday, 50 inmates including seven women were set free from Adra prison and 84 others from Hama prison,” Michel Chammas, who represents many of them, told AFP by phone from Germany.

“Another 31 inmates at Homs prison were also informed that they are going to be let go but they still haven’t been released. Four others held elsewhere should also be released,” he said.

Those being freed had been accused of “terrorism”, a term President Bashar al-Assad’s government uses to describe all of its armed opponents.

Chammas, who tracks the cases of his clients from abroad, said the releases would take place in exchange for the return of “the bodies of five Russian soldiers that are in rebel hands”.

Two officers and three crew were aboard a Russian military helicopter shot down on August 1 in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is almost entirely under the control of a coalition of Islamists and jihadists.

The attack was the single deadliest for Moscow since it intervened in the conflict in September 2015 in support of Assad, taking to 18 the overall number of Russian soldiers killed in the country.

Chammas declined to say which rebel groups were involved in the negotiations with the regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said 86 people had been released in the central city of Hama.

They had been accused of “terrorism” or involvement in anti-regime protests at the outbreak of Syria’s conflict in 2011, said the Britain-based monitor, which has a network of sources on the ground in Syria.

A spokesman for the rebel forces involved in the exchange said they had charged a “commission” with negotiating the swap.

“The bodies of the Russian pilots are in the hands of the Army of Conquest,” said Ahmad Qarra Ali of the Ahrar al-Sham group that forms part of that coalition.

“We take care of our prisoners and the remains of our enemies because that is the only way to secure the release of our men, women and children who are prisoners of the regime,” he told AFP.


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