An unidentified Iranian man, center, who was among 48 Iranians held captive… (Vahid Salemi / Associated…)
TEHRAN -- Scores of families bearing wreaths of flowers crowded Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport on Thursday to greet the hostages released this week in Syria, who rejoined their families tearfully after months in captivity. One was hoisted joyfully onto relatives' shoulders.
“It was very difficult,” another freed man said on Iranian state television, tears falling from his eyes as his stood alongside his daughter. He thanked officials for working to secure their release.
Iranian officials described the 48 freed hostages as Shiite Muslim pilgrims, abducted more than five months ago on their way to the Damascus airport. Syrian rebels who seized the Iranians claimed the prisoners were part of the elite Revolutionary Guard forces sent to Syria to help its embattled President Bashar Assad. Iran is a key ally of the Syrian government.
The Iranians were freed in exchange for thousands of detainees held by the Syrian government, a rare pause in the ruthless clashes between Syrian forces and rebels.
Local officials and Iranian state television said the airplane carrying the freed Iranians landed about 4 p.m. after snowfall delayed its takeoff from the Damascus airport.
Hours later, they still had yet to greet their families in the airport, reportedly because they were being examined by physicians. Associated Press photojournalist Wahid Salami said the medical team was examining the freed hostages one by one for viruses and germs “as they have been in custody in hostile conditions in Syria,” according to police.
State television reported the released hostages were welcomed warmly by officials and then took part in group prayers before being released. The freed hostages reunited with their families just after 8 p.m. in a joyful reunion filmed on state television.
“Five months were really hard,” another of the returnees said to a television reporter. “But we were sure that thanks to the prayers of the people and the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] that we would finally be released.”
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Emily Alpert in Los Angeles contributed to this report.