Turkey can play a “major role” in freeing 48 Iranian pilgrims abducted in Syria because of its links with the Syrian opposition, Iran’s foreign minister said on Tuesday.
Ali Akbar Salehi said he was in Turkey to follow the case of the pilgrims abducted over the weekend because “Turkey has links with the opposition in Syria, so we think Turkey can play major role in freeing our pilgrims.”
His remarks came during a snap visit to Ankara for a meeting with his counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu.
The Iranians were taken hostage on Saturday as they travelled by bus to the airport in Damascus. It was the single biggest abduction of Iranians since the start of the Syrian uprising in March last year.
Salehi over the weekend telephoned his Turkish and Qatari counterparts, Davutoglu and Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir Al Thani, to request their help.
Tehran accuses both Ankara and Doha of arming the Syrian rebels.
In addition to taking in more than 45,000 Syrian refugees in several camps along its southern border provinces, Turkey is also providing sanctuary to members of the rebel forces fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
But Turkey has repeatedly denied allegations that it is arming the rebels.
Turkey and Iran are at the opposite ends of the Syrian crisis. Ankara has been at the forefront of the international criticism against the Damascus regime’s deadly response to the popular uprising, while Tehran is one of Assad’s few allies.
The 17-month uprising in Syria has strained bilateral ties between Ankara and Tehran.
Few hours before Salehi’s visit to Ankara, the Turkish foreign ministry hit back at a senior Iranian official’s remarks suggesting that Ankara was a US stooge and would be the next affected by the conflict in Syria.
“We strongly condemn the groundless accusations and extremely inappropriate threats against our country delivered by some Iranian officials, including those by Iranian chief of staff Hassan Firouzabadi,” the ministry said in a statement.
Firouzabadi’s remarks accusing Turkey, along with other neighbouring countries, of helping “the belligerent objectives of the Great Satan, the United States”.
“If they accept this method though, they should realise that after Syria it will be the turn of Turkey and other countries,” he said in a statement posted Monday on the Sepahnews, the official Guards website.
In Ankara, Salehi declined to comment on the Turkish foreign ministry’s statement, nor the Iranian military commander’s threats.
“I am not here to speak about rhetorics,” he said.
Salehi also praised Turkey and Iran as “two major powers in the region,” and added: “If they join hands they can certainly facilitate peace and stability in the region.”
He was due to meet with Davutoglu later.
Salehi’s brief visit to Turkey comes ahead of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s scheduled trip to Istanbul at the weekend.
On Tuesday, Iran said that it was holding the United States responsible for the lives of its citizens taken hostage in Syria, following an unconfirmed report by a Syrian rebel group that three of them had been killed by shelling.
The upcoming summit of the Non-Aligned Movement which Tehran is hosting is also expected to be discussed by Salehi and Davutoglu.
Iran has invited the leaders of Russia, Turkey and the United Nations to the meeting on August 30-31 but Turkey has not yet given a response.
The NAM groups 120 countries which consider themselves not formally part of the world’s major power blocs.
Neither Russia nor Turkey are members, though Moscow has observer status.