Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Iranian Pilgrims Are Kidnapped in Syria; Violence Returns to Damascus, While Fighting Rages in Aleppo

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Iranian Pilgrims Are Kidnapped in Syria; Violence Returns to Damascus, While Fighting Rages in Aleppo

Article excerpt

BEIRUT - Gunmen snatched 47 Iranian pilgrims outside Damascus, Syria, on Saturday in a brazen attack that revealed the growing instability at the center of President Bashar Assad's power.

The abduction came as Syrian troops moved to crush one of the last rebel-dominated neighborhoods 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 traveling from a shrine at Sayeda Zeinab, about 10 miles south of Damascus, to the airport to return home when they were kidnapped, according to the Iranian state news agency, IRNA. The agency said the whereabouts of the pilgrims was known but did not elaborate.

Predominantly 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 Muhammad's granddaughter.

The kidnapping underscores the inability of the regime, which is fighting rebels in all the major cities of the country, to control even the immediate environs of the capital city. Just a few miles from the site of the kidnapping, regime forces encircled the southern Damascus neighborhood of Tadamon, a bastion of rebel support. Heavy explosions shook the capital Saturday, and plumes of smoke rose from the neighborhood that was attacked by regime forces the night before.

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. …

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