48 Iranians Kidnapped in Syrian Capital

Posted August 4th, 2012 at 11:25 am (UTC-5)
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State-run media in Tehran say 48 Iranian nationals were kidnapped aboard a bus in Damascus, just a few kilometers from a battle between government troops and rebels fighting against the Assad government.

Iranian reports say the kidnap victims were in Syria as religious pilgrims. One account says “armed groups” stopped their bus as it was heading toward Damascus airport, and a worker at Iran's embassy in the Syrian capital is quoted as saying they were returning from a trip to a Shi'ite holy site.

The state news agency IRNA says Iranian officials know where the kidnapped pilgrims are being held, and that efforts to free them are under way.

In recent years hundreds of thousands of Iranians have traveled Syria to visit the Sayeda Zeinab mosque, a holy Shi'ite shrine in Damascus. Iranians have been targets for kidnap gangs several times since Syrian rebel groups began their mass uprising against President Bashar al-Assad more than 17 months ago.

Syrian rebels come mainly from the country's Sunni Muslim majority, while most Iranians practice Shi'ite Islam.

Heavy fighting also was under way Saturday in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, where an entire district has become a battleground. An army helicopter fired machine-gun rounds and ground troops shelled rebel positions in an attempt to crash through the insurgents' front-line defenses. Fighting also was reported near Aleppo's television and radio station.

Heavy explosions also shook Damascus Saturday as Syria's civil war intensified.

Meanwhile, China said Saturday that the West should be blamed for obstructing a diplomatic and political solution to Syria's crisis by calling for regime change. Chinese authorities dismissed criticism from the United States and others that Beijing and Moscow were an obstacle to peace efforts.

Wang Kejian, an official at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said China's position remains that the Syrian crisis can only be solved through political discussions, not by military intervention.

The U.N. General Assembly approved a non-binding resolution Friday that condemned Syria's use of heavy weapons in the fight against rebel forces. It also criticized the Security Council's failure to stem the violence.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said the Syria conflict is now a “proxy war,” and he urged major powers to end the violence. He said, “The immediate interests of the Syrian people must be paramount over any larger rivalries of influence.”

Russia and China have vetoed three Security Council resolutions on Syria. Mr. Ban said the Council has become “paralyzed” over the issue.