Agence France-Presse

48 Iranian pilgrims kidnapped by gunmen in Damascus: officials

Seven Iranian nationals were reported today to have been abducted in the flashpoint Syrian city of Homs. An unknown group calling itself the "Movement Against the Expansion of Shiism in Syria" on Monday claimed responsibility for their abduction in a statement.



Iranian state television today said 48 pilgrims were taken captive by gunmen in Damascus today, the largest known such abduction of Iranians in Syria, reported the Associated Press

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Armed assailants stopped a bus filled with Iranian pilgrims as it was driving toward the Sayeda Zeinab mosque, where there is a Shiite shrine, Iran's state-run Arabic Al-Alam news channel cited an unidentified official at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus as saying, said AP

But Majid Kamjou, Iran's embassy head in Damascus, reportedly told Iran's state news agency that "[a]rmed terrorist groups kidnapped 48 Iranian pilgrims on their way to the airport," according to Naharnet news

"There are no reports about the fate of the pilgrims," Kamjou is reported as saying. "The embassy and Syrian officials are trying to trace the kidnappers." (The English-language report on Iran's Press TV, for its part, accuses "terrorists" of kidnapping the group.)

All this is happening as Syria continues to be wracked with violence, with regime forces reportedly moving into a rebel-held Tadamon neighborhood just a few miles from where the kidnapping was believed to have taken place on the outskirts of Damascus, said AP

Rebel forces have been trying to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad -- a close ally of Iran -- for the last 17 months.

The conflict, which has taken over 10,000 lives, has become increasingly unpredictable in recent weeks, prompting fears that the situation will devolve into full-scale civil war (if it hasn't already). 

The international community, meanwhile, has not been able to help resolve the crisis, with UN mediator Kofi Annan quitting his post last week in protest over what he said was a lack of political will. 

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