Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi has called for Turkey's prompt intervention to secure the release of 48 Iranian pilgrims taken hostage in the capital of war-torn Syria by opposition forces, who claimed the Iranians were involved in fighting opponents of President Bashar al-Assad.
Salehi has also contacted his Qatari counterpart to secure the release of the Iranians. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Qatari counterpart Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani agreed to seek the pilgrims' release during separate phone conversations with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran's state news agency IRNA said on Sunday.
Turkish diplomatic sources, on the other hand, only said that Davutoğlu and Salehi had exchanged views on recent developments in Syria during their conversation.
Iranian media said the Iranians were traveling on a bus to the airport from the ornate, gold-domed shrine of Sayeda Zainab, the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter -- a Shiite site of pilgrimage in the southeastern suburbs of Damascus -- to return home when they were captured by armed insurgents. A Free Syrian Army commander, on the other hand, said the bus was far from the mosque and heading to areas where government forces and rebels were fighting.
"We received information about the Iranians and started tracking them for two months," Cpt. Abdel Nasser al-Shumair, commander of the al-Baraa brigade of the Free Syrian Army, said in an interview with Dubai-based al-Arabiya television. Fighters were "still checking the documents that prove the identity of these detainees and will make our findings public in due course."
Syrian opposition fighters accuse Iran of sending fighters from its Revolutionary Guard to help Assad's forces put down an uprising against his regime. Tehran denies the charges.
Al-Shumair also denied contact with any foreign country on the situation of the hostages. "Negotiations with parties inside or outside Syria are not open yet before we confirm the identity of the Iranians and prove that Iran is active on Syrian lands with its soldiers and arms," he said. The interview was aired after the broadcast of a video showing armed men checking the identity cards of the kidnapped Iranians.
“They are 48, in addition to an Afghan interpreter,” he said, claiming that the captives were members of a 150-strong group sent by Iran for “reconnaissance on the ground.”
The kidnapping is the largest such abduction of Iranian pilgrims, although it is not the first time Iranians have been kidnapped by armed gunmen in Syria.
Several Iranians have been abducted in Syria since the uprising against President Assad began 17 months ago, and many have been released to Turkish authorities before being returned to Iran, according to Iranian media outlets.
In January, a group of armed assailants attacked a bus and abducted 11 Iranian pilgrims as they drove from the Turkish border to Damascus. At least two were later freed, with Turkish mediation. In December 2011, armed insurgents kidnapped five engineers in the city of Homs while they were on their way to work at the city's Jandar power plant, which is under construction by Iranian technicians. The FSA claimed responsibility, accusing the engineers of aiding Assad's regime. At least four have been released.
Syria has long welcomed Iranian pilgrims visiting shrines, up to 700,000 every year prior to the uprising. Iran's state news agency IRNA has reported that the number has fallen precipitously since the 17-month uprising, which has killed an estimated 19,000 people.
Tehran has criticized Turkey and Qatar for helping rebels fighting to topple Assad, a close ally Iran has praised for his promises to implement political reforms. Syria has accused Qatar's Sunni Muslim rulers of funneling weapons and money to the rebels, considered terrorists by Damascus.
Qatar, a Sunni-ruled monarchy in the Gulf, has adopted a critical stance regarding the Syrian issue. Qatar has supported the idea of arming the opposition against Assad's regime, but Western nations oppose any such action.
Syria, which has been experiencing unrest since mid-March 2011, claims “outlaws, saboteurs and armed terrorists” are behind the unrest, while the West and the opposition accuse security forces of killing protesters.
The majority of the Syrians seeking to topple Assad belong to the Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad comes from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which is the main religion of Iran, a close ally of the beleaguered Syrian government.
Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled the fighting to mainly Sunni Muslim Turkey. The nominal commander of the FSA, a loosely coordinated group of insurgents fighting Assad's forces, is also based there.