The Associated Press
BEIRUT — In a brazen daylight kidnapping, gunmen snatched a bus filled with 48 Iranian pilgrims from a Damascus suburb Saturday as they headed to visit a shrine holy to Shiites, reported Iranian state television.
The abduction was the largest single kidnapping of Iranians in Syria, where several smaller groups of Iranians have been snatched in recent months. It came as regime forces were pounding the neighborhood of Tadamon, on the southern outskirts of the Damascus, trying to uproot one of the last rebel-held areas in the city.
The pilgrims had just left their hotel on Saturday and were headed by bus to the Sayeda Zeinab mosque, a holy shrine for Shiite Muslims in a suburb south of the capital, when they were taken, Iran's Arabic language, state-owned TV station Al-Alam said, citing an official at the Iranian embassy in Damascus.
The state news agency, in a conflicting report, said they were headed to the airport when they were taken. The report added that the location where they were being held was known, without giving any further details.
Iran's English-language state station, Press TV, blamed "terrorists" for the abduction, echoing language used by the Syrian regime to describe the rebels in has been battling for the past 17 months in an uprising that has claimed 19,000 lives.
The kidnapping suggests that despite two weeks of operations against Syria's rebels around Damascus, the opposition continues to hold pockets of the countryside there.
Mainly Shiite Iran is a close ally to the Syrian regime, which is dominated by the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Iranians have been targeted several times by gunmen from the Sunni-dominated opposition.
In February, gunman kidnapped 11 Iranian pilgrims driving from the Turkish border to Damascus to visit Shiite shrines. At least two were later freed with Turkish mediation. Earlier, seven Iranian engineers building a power plant in central Syria were kidnapped and the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility, accusing them of aiding Assad's regime. At least four have been released.
Sunni militants often attacked Iranian pilgrims visiting holy sites in neighboring Iraq during the years of unrest there and there have been reports of an influx of such militants into Syria since the uprising began.
Saturday's kidnapping came as heavy explosions shook the Syrian capital and helicopters circled regime forces pounded Tadamon neighborhood, which has been sealed off by the Syrian army from surrounding areas.
"We heard heavy bombing since dawn," a witness in Damascus told The Associated Press, asking that his name not be used out of fear for his personal safety. "Helicopters are in the sky."
The state news agency had originally said Friday that the army had finished hunting down the remnants of the "terrorist mercenaries" in the neighborhood, but the persistent sounds of clashes suggested otherwise.
The new violence in Damascus reflected the regime's difficulty in keeping rebels down even at the center of its rule. Two weeks ago, the government crushed the rebels' biggest yet campaign in Damascus that included incursions by fighters into downtown neighborhoods and an audacious bomb attack that killed four members of Assad's inner circle.
The Damascus fighting threatens to stretch the army's resources as fighting stretches into its second week in Syria's biggest city, Aleppo, 350 kilometers (215 miles) to the north.
Hundreds of rebel fighters staged a three-hour offensive to capture the strategic television broadcasting building in Aleppo and were only driven off when government forces called in jet fighters and attack helicopters, according to the Britain-Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Government troops also shelled a number of rebel-held neighborhoods in the city and commercial hub, including opposition-bastion of Salaheddine, which has been a constant flash point.
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