Iran TV: 48 Iranians kidnapped in Syria
Aug 4, 9:22 AM (ET)
By PAUL SCHEMM
BEIRUT (AP) - In a brazen daylight kidnapping, gunmen snatched a bus filled with 48 Iranian pilgrims from a Damascus suburb as they headed to visit a shrine holy Shiites, reported Iranian state television on Saturday.
Just a few miles away in the southern outskirts of the Syrian capital, regime forces pounded the neighborhood of Tadamon, one of the last rebel-held areas in the city and began to move into the neighborhood.
The abduction was the largest single kidnapping of Iranians in Syria, where several smaller groups of Iranians have been snatched in recent months.
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.
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.
Mainly Shiite Iran is a close ally to the Syrian regime, which is dominated by the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Earlier this year a group of Iranian engineers and later a group of pilgrims were kidnapped, with only some of them having been freed. Sunni militants often attacked Iranian pilgrims visiting holy sites in neighboring Iraq during the years of unrest there.
The 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."
Saturday's violence comes only two weeks after the government crushed a rebel run on Damascus that included incursions by fighters into downtown neighborhoods and an audacious bomb attack that killed four members of Assad's inner circle.
The fighting in Damascus appeared likely to drain the army's resources as fighting stretches into its second week in Aleppo, 350 kilometers (215 miles) to the north.
As the fighting grinds on, Syria reached out to its powerful ally Russia on Friday. Senior Syrian officials pleaded with Moscow for financial loans and supplies of oil products - an indication that international sanctions are squeezing Assad's regime.
Syria is thought to be burning quickly through the $17 billion in foreign reserves that the government was believed to have at the start of Assad's crackdown.
Russia has protected Syria from U.N. sanctions and continued to supply it with weapons throughout the conflict. The Kremlin, backed by fellow veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member China, has blocked any plans that would call on Assad to step down.
On Saturday, China said the West that should be blamed for obstructing diplomatic and political efforts to restore order and peace in Syria.
Wang Kejian, a deputy director of north African and west Asian affairs at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told a news conference that Western countries had hindered and sabotaged the political process by advocating regime change.
Wang reiterated China's stance that the solution to the Syria crisis should be a political one and that it is opposed to any military intervention.
Associated Press writers Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.
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