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Turkish journalists detained in Syria released

By Ivan Watson and Yesim Comert, CNN
updated 7:45 PM EDT, Sat May 12, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Adem Ozkose and Hamit Coskun arrive in Istanbul
  • Turkish charity: The Syrian opposition released two Iranians as a "goodwill gesture"
  • Turkey hosts Syrian opposition groups and tens of thousands of Syrian refugees
  • Iran continues to be a staunch supporter of the Syrian regime

Istanbul (CNN) -- Two Turkish journalists were released from a Syrian jail and flew Saturday to Istanbul via Tehran, as part of what appears to be a prisoner swap between Turkey and Iran through intermediaries in Syria.

Iran's foreign minister called his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, on Saturday morning to inform him of their release, Turkey's foreign ministry spokesman said.

"We are sending a plane to pick them up," said the spokesman, Selcuk Unal. The private aircraft then carried the pair from Tehran to Turkey.

Mustafa Ozkose, the father of one of the journalists, expressed overwhelming joy.

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"When a person is this happy, it becomes impossible to express it in words," he said.

For almost two months, writer Adem Ozkose and freelance cameraman Hamit Coskun were feared dead. They disappeared on March 10 while on assignment in Syria's bloody Idlib province.

"They were apprehended by Syrian authorities while they were performing their journalistic duties, and that's why they were brought down to Damascus," Unal said.

Soon afterward, Turkey withdrew its ambassador from Damascus and closed its embassy. The once-cozy relationship between the two neighbors has deteriorated dramatically over the last year, as Turkey denounced a Syrian government crackdown on protesters. The United Nations says more than than 9,000 people have been killed in the 14-month Syrian crisis.

The Humanitarian Relief Foundation, a Turkish Islamist charity organization widely known by its Turkish acronym IHH, took the lead in negotiations to determine the two journalists' whereabouts.

The group late Saturday posted on Twitter a photo of Coskun embracing his mother in Istanbul.

Last week, an IHH delegation distributed video of Ozkose and Coskun, who both looked stunned and relieved but also healthy during a meeting with IHH officials. The IHH revealed that the two journalists were being held in a Syrian prison in Damascus, and that the organization had been negotiating with Syrian and Iranian officials to secure their release.

"By that stage, the Syrian authorities were also convinced that these people were journalists and were willing to release them," said Serkan Nergis, a spokesman for IHH.

"The Syrian opposition, as a goodwill gesture, released two more Iranians," Nergis added. "But this is not in exchange for Adem (and Coskun)," he insisted. "This is a goodwill gesture."

Turkey, which hosts Syrian opposition groups as well as tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, has previously helped broker the release of at least two groups of captive Iranians.

While the Syrian uprising led to the rupture of diplomatic ties between Turkey and Syria, Iran continues to be a staunch supporter of the Syrian regime.

CNN's Talia Kayali contributed to this report.

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