Last updated: 5 August, 2012

Scores of Iranian pilgrims abducted in Damascus

Iran has reached out to Turkey and Qatar to ask for their help in freeing 48 Iranian pilgrims being held in Syria after kidnappers stormed their bus in Damascus, state media reported on Sunday.

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”.

The 48 Iranians were kidnapped on Saturday by unidentified “armed terrorist groups” as they were travelling in a bus to the airport in Damascus, according to the Iranian embassy in the Syrian capital and the Syrian state news agency SANA.

It was the single biggest abduction of Iranians since the start of the Syrian uprising in March last year.

Since December, 32 other Iranians — pilgrims, engineers and truck drivers — have been taken, presumably by rebel groups, in several separate instances. Twenty-seven of them have been released in recent months, in some cases with Turkish help, according to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.

The website of state television said Salehi was again tapping Turkey for its “immediate intervention to liberate the Iranian pilgrims held hostage in Syria,” and had also asked Qatar for help.

Davutoglu responded by promising “to study the issue and to carry out efforts as in previous cases,” the website said.

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 Syria.