AMMAN, Syria - Syrian forces have released the bodies of seven young men killed in a military raid on a conservative Sunni district of Damascus in exchange for an army officer abducted by rebels, opposition sources in the capital said on Sunday.
The army had refused until Friday to release the bodies of the seven, who were killed on May 5 in a sweep of the Barzeh neighbourhood, prompting the rebels to abduct the officer, Youssef Zaghbour, days later, they said.
The area in the north of the capital has been the scene of regular street demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Free Syrian Army rebels have lately been finding support in Barzeh, with more of the population turning to armed struggle to counter the military crackdown on the 14-month protest movement.
"Zaghbour was not hurt. The funerals of the seven martyrs took place in Barzeh yesterday and today, drawing large crowds,"one of the sources said from Barzeh. Live video footage broadcast by activists on Sunday purportedly showed the coffins of three of the seven, covered in red and white roses, being carried by mourners.
It showed thousands shouting slogans demanding freedom and waving green and white flags from the era before Assad's Baath Party took power in a 1963 coup.
"Rejoice, mother of the martyr. Your son is beloved by God,"the crowd sang. There was no comment from the authorities, who tightly restrict access by independent media.
Keeping the bodies of those killed by Assad's forces has been a common practice in the crackdown on the revolt against 42 years of rule by Assad and his late father, Hafez al-Assad, activists and human rights organisations say.
The say that by keeping the bodies, or releasing them after weeks or months, and only after agreeing with the families that funerals will be small and quiet, the authorities hope to prevent the funerals becoming anti-Assad rallying points.