DUBAI, (Reuters) – Tehran has asked Turkey and Qatar to help secure the release of 48 Iranian pilgrims kidnapped in the Syrian capital Damascus, Iran’s state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday.
The Iranian pilgrims were seized after visiting a popular Shiite shrine in Damascus on Saturday by an armed group.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari counterpart Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani agreed to help seek the pilgrims’ release during separate phone conversations with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, IRNA reported.
Several Iranians have been abducted in Syria since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began 17 months ago, and many have been released to Turkish authorities before returning to Iran, according to Iranian media.
Five Iranian engineers kidnapped in Homs in December were freed last month, and a more pilgrims were snatched in January and February. Most have been released, Iranian media reported.
The bulk of the Syrians seeking to topple Assad belong to the Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad comes from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam which is the main religion of Iran.
Tehran has criticised Turkey and Qatar for helping rebels fighting to topple Assad, a close ally Iran has praised for promising political reforms.
Tens of thousands of Syrians fled the fighting to mainly Sunni Muslim Turkey and the nominal commander of the Free Syrian Army, a loosely coordinated group of insurgents fighting Assad’s forces, is also based there.
Syria has accused Qatar’s Sunni Muslim rulers of funnelling weapons and money to the rebels, which Damascus describes as terrorists.