Gunmen snatch 47 Iranian pilgrims outside Damascus


Gunmen snatched 47 Iranian pilgrims just outside Damascus in a brazen attack that revealed the growing instability at the centre of President Bashar Assad's power.

The kidnap came as Syrian troops moved yesterday to crush one of the last rebel-dominated neighbourhoods in the capital, shelling the area heavily.

No group immediately claimed responsibility, although Iranian state media blamed the rebels fighting the Assad regime.

The pilgrims were on a bus taking them from the suburb of Sayeda Zeinab, about 10 miles south of Damascus, to the airport to return home when they were kidnapped, according to Iranian state news agency IRNA.

Mainly-Shiite Iran is a close ally of the beleaguered Syrian government, which is dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.

Syria has long welcomed Iranian pilgrims visiting the ornate gold-domed shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammed's granddaughter; up to 700,000 pilgrims used to come every year, IRNA said, although the number has fallen precipitously since the 17-month uprising that has killed an estimated 19,000.

Last night Iran's semi-official Fars news agency announced that Syrian forces had freed the hostages, but cited no source. There was no confirmation from the Syrians.

The kidnapping underscores the inability of the regime, which is fighting rebels in all the major cities of the country, to even control the immediate environs of the capital city.

Just a few miles from the site of the kidnapping, regime forces encircled the southern Damascus neighbourhood of Tadamon, a bastion of rebel support. Heavy explosions shook the capital and plumes of smoke rose from the neighbourhood that was attacked by regime forces the night before.

"We heard heavy bombing since dawn," a witness in Damascus said. "Helicopters are in the sky." By nightfall the state media reported the whole capital to be in government hands, but such announcements have in the past proved premature.

The kidnapping was the largest such abduction of Iranian pilgrims, although it was not the first.

In January, gunman kidnapped 11 Iranian pilgrims driving from the Turkish border to Damascus. At least two were later freed with Turkish mediation. Seven Iranian engineers building a power plant in central Syria were kidnapped in December and the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility, accusing them of aiding Assad's regime. At least four have been released.

Sunni Muslim militants often attacked Iranian pilgrims visiting holy sites in neighbouring Iraq during the years of unrest there. There have been reports of an influx of such militants into Syria since the uprising began. Targeting the pilgrims may be seen as attacking allies of the regime.

A Syrian-based Sunni militant group posted on jihadi web forums that it had kidnapped and executed a prominent Syrian television broadcaster, who had been reported missing since July 19.

The al-Nusra Front announced that Mohammed Saeed, presenter for the Syrian Talk Of The Town programme, had been captured and put on trial before being executed.

"Perhaps this operation and others will serve as an example to all who support this tyrannical regime," said the statement, which included a photo of Mr Saeed, apparently while in the militants' custody.

The new violence in Damascus reflected the regime's difficulty in keeping rebels down even at the centre of its rule. Two weeks ago the government crushed the rebels' biggest yet campaign in the capital city that included incursions by fighters into central neighbourhoods and an audacious bomb attack that killed four members of Assad's inner circle.

The main battle, however, has now moved to Syria's largest city of Aleppo, some 215 miles north of Damascus, where rebels seized several neighbourhoods two weeks ago and have proved difficult to dislodge.

Yesterday hundreds of rebels attacked the strategic television broadcast building and were only driven off after a three-hour battle in which the government resorted to jet fighters and helicopter gunships.

Clashes were also reported around the medieval citadel, a symbol of the city that dominates its ancient centre, suggesting the rebels are trying to expand their hold.

Aleppo is Syria's commercial hub and close to the Turkish border where the rebels have their rear bases. If the opposition were to gain control, it would be a major blow to the regime and a possible opposition base of operations.

More heavily-armed government troops, however, have been steadily shelling the rebel-controlled parts of the city, particularly the Salaheddine neighbourhood, suggesting Aleppo will not fall to the rebels any time soon.

China said yesterday the West 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, said Western countries had hindered and sabotaged the political process by advocating regime change.

Mr Wang reiterated China's stance that the solution to the Syria crisis should be a political one and that it was opposed to any military intervention.

Meanwhile 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.