BEIRUT (AP) — 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.
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.
Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, who has led a delegation of several Cabinet ministers to Moscow over the past few days, told reporters Friday that they requested a Russian loan to replenish Syria's hard currency reserves, which have been depleted by a U.S. and European Union embargo on Syrian exports.
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.
Turkey also reported the defection of another Syrian general, along with five colonels, who came over the border with a group of refugees. The general would be the 29th to defect since the start of the uprising. Despite the defections, however, the Syrian army has largely remained intact since the uprising.
Associated Press writers Elizabeth Kennedy in Beirut and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Iran, Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this report.