Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said several of the Iranians abducted by Syrian rebels are retired members of the military and the Revolutionary Guard Corps who were on a pilgrimage.
Salehi, who flew to Ankara yesterday to discuss the release of the captives, said he had “straightforward and frank” discussions with Turkish officials about the status of the 40 people captured on Aug. 4. He made the comments after meeting his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, according to a report published today by the state-run Iranian Students News Agency.
“We rejected reports saying these individuals are part of the Revolutionary Guards and explained that a number of retired individuals from several ministries and the guards had signed up to make the pilgrimage,” Salehi said. “Pilgrimage trips to Syria had been interrupted but resumed recently as we can’t stop people from visiting the holy shrine.”
The kidnapping took place as Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad massed on the outskirts of Aleppo, the country’s most populated city, where they’ve used artillery, helicopter gunships and fixed-wing combat aircraft to attack rebels who moved into the city last month. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says more than 21,000 people have died during the 17 month-long uprising.
Shiite-led Iran has been the closest regional ally of Assad’s government, which is dominated by officials from the Alawite sect, affiliated with Shiite Islam. The rebels are mostly drawn from the Sunni majority.
A video broadcast by Al Arabiya television that showed the Iranians sitting under the rebel Free Syria Army’s flag and surrounded by armed men demonstrates that “they don’t carry any equipment apart from ordinary clothes and their personal belongings,” Salehi said.
The Iranians were on three different buses driving between the airport and the pilgrimage site near Damascus when one of the vehicles took a parallel road and was seized, Salehi said.
An Iranian foreign ministry official rejected reports that three of the captured Iranians may have been killed during heavy shelling in the suburbs of Damascus, saying they were all “healthy.”
“They are all healthy and there is no sign that a number of them have been martyred,” Mojtaba Ferdowsipour, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Middle East office, told Iran’s state-run Al-Alam news channel in an interview.
Iran is working toward “the rapid release and return of these citizens to their homeland,” he said in comments published on the satellite channel’s website.