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Iranian pilgrims kidnapped on trip to Syria

This news story was published on August 5, 2012.
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By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –

BEIRUT — Gunmen kidnapped dozens of Iranian pilgrims on a trip to strife-torn Syria on Saturday, the latest in a series of abductions that have targeted citizens of Iran, a major international ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The pilgrims — their numbers were variously reported as 47 and 48 — were kidnapped by “armed opposition groups” as they were heading from the Damascus airport to a home in the suburbs of the capital, the official Iranian news service reported. All were planning to visit a major Shiite Muslim shrine in the southern outskirts of Damascus.

Meanwhile, fresh battles were reported Saturday in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, where rebels have occupied several neighborhoods and are seeking to control the entire city. News agencies reported that government artillery and helicopter gunships pounded rebel positions in the city.

Humanitarian agencies have expressed concern about the fate of civilians in Aleppo, where severe shortages of bread and fuel have been reported. Thousands of people have fled the country’s biggest city, but many remain there and are possibly in harm’s way, the United Nations says.

The abduction of the Iranian pilgrims underscores how the crisis in Syria has had profound repercussions well beyond its borders.

On Saturday, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, telephoned his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, calling for the “prompt intervention of Ankara” to release the Iranian pilgrims, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

Turkey has hosted Syrian opposition members and is believed to have considerable influence with groups fighting to oust Assad.

But Syrian opposition fighters are highly decentralized and include dozens of militias that report to no central command. Turkey’s mediation has not led to the release of 11 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims kidnapped in Syria in May. The Lebanese hostages, whose capture has prompted street protests from their relatives in Lebanon, were reportedly being detained by Syrian insurgents in rebel-held areas near the Turkish border with Syria.

Iranian citizens have been targeted before in Syria, where mostly Sunni Muslim rebels are seeking to overthrow Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Others kidnapped include a group of pilgrims and a number of Iranian engineers. Some of the earlier Iranian kidnapping victims have been released, but it was not clear if all had been freed.

Officials in Iran, where Shiites are in the majority, have steadfastly backed Assad’s argument that his government is under attack from terrorists acting under a “foreign conspiracy.”

Syrian rebels say they are seeking to end the bloody and autocratic domination of the Assad family, which has ruled for more than 40 years.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians travel each year to the Sayyida Zainab shrine, a major Shiite monument south of Damascus. The shrine is said to be the burial site of the granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad. But the violence in Syria has caused a dramatic drop-off in visits.

Shiite pilgrims have often been targeted by Sunni extremists in neighboring Iraq, and some worry that a similar scenario is unfolding in Syria. The United Nations and human rights groups have expressed fears that Syria’s civil conflict is becoming more sectarian.

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