BEIRUT – Iran said Sunday that it was seeking the aid of Turkey and Qatar, nations with close ties to the Syrian opposition, in securing the release of dozens of Iranian citizens kidnapped the day before in Syria.
But the case took a dramatic turn when a purported Syrian rebel commander appeared in a video saying his brigade was holding the hostages. The commander labeled the captives Iranian militiamen nabbed while on a “reconnaissance mission” in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Iran says the hostages – their numbers have variously been reported as 47 and 48 – are pilgrims who were visiting a revered Shiite Muslim shrine near Damascus when they were kidnapped en route to their hotels.
Iran has repeatedly denied rebel allegations that it has dispatched military and intelligence units to Syria to assist Syrian President Bashar Assad in his effort to crush an almost 17-month-old rebellion.
The kidnappings, the latest example of how the civil strife in Syria is reverberating throughout the region, have distinct sectarian overtones.
Most of Syria’s rebels come from the nation’s Sunni Muslim majority. Assad and much of his military leadership are members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Iran, a Shiite-led theocracy, is a staunch ally of Assad.
The Syrian rebels have received support from Sunni-dominated nations, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The new video, posted on the website of Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab satellite channel, features the self-described rebel commander denouncing the captives as Iranian shabiha, or militiamen. He seems to threaten their lives, while praising God.
“We warn Iran that we will target all their assets in Syria,” declares the rebel commander, who wears military fatigues.
The commander displays what he calls the personal documents of one of the captives, whom he calls an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, an elite military unit. The documents include the captive’s gun permits, the commander says.
The video could not be independently verified. But Al Arabiya said it later interviewed the commander of the rebels’ Al Baraa Brigade, the group said to have captured the Iranians, and he gave a similar account. The captives, including an Afghan interpreter, were part of a 150-strong group of Iranian operatives sent to Syria for “reconnaissance on the ground,” the rebel commander, Abdel Nasser Shmeir, told Al Arabiya.
The hostages represent the latest and the largest group of Iranians reported kidnapped in strife-ridden Syria.