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Local diplomacy wins in tense Syria prisoner exchange

By Ivan Watson and Raja Razek, CNN
July 30, 2012 -- Updated 1208 GMT (2008 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Syrian rebels strike a deal to exchange Sunni prisoners for Shiites as CNN watches
  • The rebels are eager to downplay any sectarian aspect of the 17-month uprising
  • President Bashar al-Assad is a member of the country's small Alawite minority

Mazra'at Anadan, Syria (CNN) -- Hot wind blew dust down a lonely stretch of country road.

A tall rebel sat in the shade, with an Austrian-made Steyr AUG assault rifle casually propped against his leg. A lit cigarette dangled from one hand, a cell phone from the other.

Somewhere out of sight a deal was being struck.

When the call came finally through, the rebel -- known by his code-name Anadan the Sniper -- was on the move.

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He drove his car up to a nearby crossroads and stopped. He was moments away from a prisoner exchange.

"We have negotiated a lot of these exchanges in the past," the Sniper said.

He said the rebels were about to trade 11 Shiite Muslim prisoners for 11 Sunni Muslim prisoners.

"What's important to us is that there shouldn't be any difference between Alawites, Shiites, and Sunnis," he said, referring to three of Syria's many religious sects. "We shouldn't have sectarianism... this is something that the regime is fomenting."

Then he pointed.

"See over there? They're coming from that olive tree."

A black van and a sedan rolled up to the crossroads and a man in Ray-Ban sunglasses and white robes jumped out, barking orders.

"Go, go go, just drop them off and bring the others to me," he yelled.

The van full of Sunni prisoners was operated by a grizzled Shiite driver. A Shiite sheik with a white turban wrapped around his face sat in the front passenger seat.

The Sniper led the van on a short drive to the nearby town of Kafr Hamra, an affluent suburb of Aleppo. The town's streets and shops were jammed with customers, a sharp contrast to other suburbs and villages around Aleppo, which were nearly deserted and blasted by artillery strikes.

The little convoy pulled up to the gate of a house. A smiling man with a comb-over that had come undone and flapped off the back of his head waved from the door, yelling "Ahlan wa sahlan...welcome."

Everyone referred to this man as Malik, or "king" of the neighborhood.

Eleven Sunni prisoners poured out of the van to warm embraces and kisses on the cheeks from Malik and the crowd of men who were waiting for them.

Their Shiite captors got an equally warm welcome. Sunnis and Shiites mingled in a courtyard, holding hands and slapping each other on the back and calling each other "brother."

A prisoner exchange that had started out looking like a tense Spaghetti western suddenly felt like a Middle Eastern family sitcom, especially when Malik enthusiastically demanded that the Shiite sheikh stay at his house for dinner.

The sheikh was clearly nervous and eager to leave, but not before first receiving a lecture from a rebel fighter.

"Our daughters are married into your families and yours have married into ours," said Mohamed Gamal Anadani. "You kidnap one of us, and we'll kidnap a thousand of you. You slap us, and we'll slap you 100 times. Why would we do that to one another?"

"The Assad military goes down to your village and fires at us from where you live. Who would tolerate something like that?," he asked.

"No one would accept that," said the Shiite driver, as he pushed past on his way to his van.

Then he snapped at a foreign camera-woman, saying "take a picture of us and send it to Ankara." The driver apparently assumed a CNN team of journalists were in the employ of the government of Turkey, which supports the rebels and calls for the overthrow of the Assad regime.

Eleven Shiite prisoners piled into the back of the vehicle. One of them had a black eye and bruised ears and clearly looked as if he'd been beaten.

"We are truck drivers that carry fuel and then an armed gang grabbed us," one of the Shiite men said, before the van slowly drove away.

At this delicate moment, neither side was comfortable explaining why the prisoners had been captured in the first place.

"I don't know how it happened," Malik insisted, after asking not to be named. "I spent three days working on this negotiation. I know someone from here and someone from there, and I try to bring them together to solve their problems."

Another Sunni man, who also asked not to be named, said the Syrian government distributed cheap fuel to communities sympathetic to the regime -- fuel that was not offered to rebel-held towns.

He explained that the rebels seized the fuel trucks and then captured their Shiite drivers in an effort to return captive rebels from the regime.

The rebels were keen to downplay the dispute's sectarian tensions.

Many observers fear that Syria, a mosaic of different religious sects and ethnic groups, could devolve into a religious conflict. For more than 40 years, the country has been ruled by the family of president Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite religious minority whose government long gave preferential treatment to other Alawites.

After 17 months of slaughter, some members of the armed opposition, which consists largely of Sunni Muslims, are demanding revenge against what they call an Alawite regime.

Syrians are all too aware of the threat of sectarian conflict, after watching rival religious groups massacre each other in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq.

And on a summer evening in Kafr Hamra, the specter of religious conflict in Syria appeared to have been momentarily delayed. The van full of released Shiite prisoners drove away peacefully back to its village. Local diplomacy won the day.

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