TEHRAN, Iran -- Iranian state media says 48 former captives have returned to Tehran after being freed by Syrian rebels in the first major prisoner swap of the civil war.

The special flight Thursday from Damascus came a day after the group was released in exchange for more than 2,000 prisoners held by Syrian authorities. The Iranians had been held more than five months.

Iran's official IRNA news agency says a plane ferrying the group home touched down at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport.

Rebels claimed the captives were linked to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard, but Tehran has denied that, saying the men were pilgrims visiting Shiite religious sites in Syria.

Iran is one of Assad's main allies, and the Iranians were a major bargaining chip for factions trying to bring down his regime.