JNN 05 Aug 2012 Damascus : Some 48 Iranian pilgrims have been kidnapped from a bus in the vicinity of a shrine near the Syrian capital Damascus, reports say. Iran has asked Turkey to help free 48 Iranian pilgrims who are being held in Syria after kidnappers stormed their bus in Damascus, state media reported on Sunday.
Iranian diplomats blamed the abduction, from close to the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zainab, on “armed groups”.
In a brazen daylight kidnapping, gunmen snatched a bus filled with 48 Iranian pilgrims from a Damascus suburb Saturday as they headed to visit a shrine holy to Shiites, reported Iranian state television.
The abduction was the largest single kidnapping of Iranians in Syria, where several smaller groups of Iranians have been snatched in recent months. It came as regime forces were pounding the neighborhood of Tadamon, on the southern outskirts of the Damascus, trying to uproot one of the last rebel-held areas in the city.
The pilgrims had just left their hotel on Saturday and were headed by bus to the Sayeda Zeinab shrine, a holy shrine for Shiite Muslims in a suburb south of the capital, when they were taken, Iran’s Arabic language, state-owned TV station al-Alam said, citing an official at the Iranian embassy in Damascus.
The state news agency, in a conflicting report, said they were headed to the airport when they were taken. The report added that the location where they were being held was known, without giving any further details.
Syrian state television later gave the same account of the incident.
Meanwhile, fresh fighting has been reported around Damascus, and in the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels are trying to secure their positions.
The Iranian consul in Damascus said the whereabouts of the abducted pilgrims was known.
Syrian state-run news agency Sana said the Iranians had been kidnapped by “armed terrorist groups” and that Syrian authorities were “working to handle the situation”.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi telephoned his Turkish and Qatari counterparts, Ahmet Davutoglu and Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir Al Thani, late Saturday to request their assistance, the state television website reported.
Turkey and Qatar are, along with Saudi Arabia, prime supporters of the Syrian opposition. Iran is the staunchest supporter of the Syrian regime battling rebels it terms “terrorists”.
“During a telephone conversation, Ali Akbar Salehi asked Ahmet Davutoglu for Turkey’s immediate intervention to liberate the Iranian pilgrims held hostage in Syria,” it said.
Davutoglu responded by promising “to study the issue and to carry out efforts as in previous cases,” it said.
Iran’s embassy in Damascus and Syria’s state Sana news agency said on Saturday that the 48 Iranian pilgrims were abducted by “armed terrorist groups”as they were in a bus on their way to the airport in Damascus.
The embassy and Syrian officials were trying to trace the kidnappers, both sources said.
Iran and Turkey are positioned on either side of the conflict raging in Syria.
Tehran is Damascus’s staunchest ally, while Ankara supports the cause of the opposition seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian government describes the rebels as “terrorists” and it and Iran accuse Turkey of supplying them with military and financial aid.
While relations have become strained at times, Tehran and Ankara continue to communicate with each other regularly as two of the states with the most influence over events in the Middle East.
Turkey played a role earlier this year in helping to free several other Iranians who had been kidnapped in Syria.
Thousands of Iranians travel each year to Syria to visit the pilgrimage site in the mostly Shia district of Sayyida Zainab, which has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks.
There have been several other reports of groups of Iranian pilgrims being kidnapped in Syria in recent months, with most later being freed.
Of 32 Iranian pilgrims, engineers and truck drivers kidnapped in several previous abductions, 27 have so far been released, according to an official IRNA news agency tally.
In May, 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims were abducted in Syria while returning from Iran. The government announced three days after their capture that they had been released but there have since been conflicting reports in Lebanese media as to their whereabouts.
The incident sparked violence across Lebanon, where the crisis in Syria has heightened sectarian tensions.
Up to 700,000 Iranians used to travel to Syria each year to visit the Sayyida Zeinab shrine, a Shiite pilgrimage site in the southeastern suburbs of Damascus, but that number has dropped since the outbreak of violence in March last year.
Meanwhile, fresh fighting was reported in Syria’s two biggest cities on Saturday.
Most areas of Aleppo where rebels are entrenched have been bombarded by government forces and clashes have been reported in several districts.
Government forces seem to now be pushing harder in the crucial battle for Aleppo, the BBC’s Jim Muir in Beirut reports.
Syrian state television reported that troops had inflicted huge losses on what it called “terrorist mercenaries” in Salah al-Din and in other nearby areas too, our correspondent adds.
Kim Sengupta of the UK’s Independent newspaper earlier told the BBC from Aleppo that there are two front lines in the city, one in Salah al-Din and one near Aleppo’s ancient iron gate.
The rebels have “remarkable” defence capability in Salah al-Din where government tanks had been trying to enter, but as an area full of narrow twisting lanes, it is perfect for guerrilla warfare, he adds.
However, the full thrust of the armour and the artillery from the regime side has not been seen yet, he adds.
The focus of the fighting is also on the southern edge of Damascus where shelling and gunfire were reported from the Tadamon quarter, despite it having been earlier stormed by government forces, says the BBC’s Jim Muir, reporting from Beirut.
Shooting and explosions were also being heard in some central parts of the capital, and activists reported clashes too on the western side of the city, in and around Dumar.
A brigadier general who refused to give his name told reporters visiting Tadamon that it had been retaken and that the military now controlled the entire capital, the AFP news agency reports.
Earlier, Russia and China condemned a UN General Assembly resolution passed on Friday which criticised the Security Council for failing to halt the violence in Syria.
Moscow’s UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters the resolution was one-sided and supported the armed opposition.
Western nations praised the resolution, which passed by 133 votes to 12 with 31 abstentions.
It criticises both the UN’s own Security Council and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its use of violence.
The assembly debated the resolution, which was proposed by Saudi Arabia, shortly after the resignation of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and the failure of his six-point peace plan.
Activists say more than 20,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in 17 months of unrest.