DUBAI (Reuters) – A bus load of Iranians were abducted by gunmen while on a pilgrimage in Syria on Saturday, Iranian media reported, the latest in a string of kidnappings of visitors from the Islamic Republic, a country allied to President Bashar al-Assad.
The 48 Iranians, planning to visit a shrine on the outskirts of Damascus of particular significance to Shi-ite Muslims, were kidnapped on the road from the airport, Iran’s consul general in Syria was reported as saying by state broadcaster IRIB.
“We still do not have any information about the fate of this group of Iranian pilgrims,” Majid Kamjoo said. “The consular section of the Iranian embassy in Syria is seeking to trace the kidnappers of the Iranian pilgrims with the cooperation of Syrian officials.”
Syria’s state television channel reported that “armed terrorist groups” had snatched the Iranians who intended to visit the Sayyeda Zeinab mosque, a popular pilgrimage site.
The bulk of the Syrians conducting a 17-month insurgency against Assad belong to the Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad comes from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam which is the main religion of Iran.
Several groups of Iranians have been abducted in Syria since the uprising began.
Five Iranian engineers were kidnapped in the flashpoint city of Homs in December. Iranian media said that they had all been released by last month. A group of pilgrims were snatched in January and another in February. Most have been released, Iranian media reported.
Iran’s official pilgrimage organisation said it did not have any pilgrims in Syria because of the circumstances in the country and that those kidnapped on Saturday had organised their trip privately, Iran’s Fars news agency reported.
Tehran has condemned what it calls foreign interference in Syrian affairs, where its Sunni Gulf Arab rivals support the uprising, and has praised Assad for promising political reforms. (Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)