Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Syrian rebels say captured Iranians are militiamen on a mission

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A group of Syrian rebels took responsibility Sunday for the kidnapping of 48 Iranians in Damascus on Saturday, but the rebels insisted that their captives are members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, not religious pilgrims as Iran's official news agency had reported.

The men were in Damascus for a field reconnaissance mission, a rebel leader said in a video. The rebels said the video showed the captives, sitting calmly behind armed Syrian fighters. In the video, the rebels flipped through what they said were Iranian identification cards and certificates for carrying weapons, proving, the rebels said, that the hostages were not religious pilgrims.

The identities and motives of the captives could not be independently verified, and some rebel groups have not embraced the kidnapping or the theory laid out by the fighters in the video. Col. Malik al-Kurdi, a deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army — one of several competing umbrella groups involved in the fighting — said the brigade taking responsibility for the kidnapping appeared to have been acting on its own and did not tell the Free Syrian Army about the operation.

Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi on Saturday contacted the Syrian and Turkish foreign ministries, asking them to secure the release of the 48 Iranians.

In a statement, the Iranian Embassy in Damascus said that the abducted Iranians had traveled to Syria using a "private" tour company for a pilgrimage to the Shiite shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, a Shiite site in the suburbs of Damascus. Iranian state media said women and children were also among those taken by the Syrian rebels.

For the rebels, the hostages offered an opportunity to broadcast their belief that the government of President Bashar Assad was on its way out and to argue that Iran and other foreign supporters of the Syrian government should reconsider their allegiances.

In the video, first shown on Al-Arabiya television network, which is owned by Saudi Arabia, a supporter of the rebel cause, the rebels insisted that the Assad government was "inevitably short-lived."

The kidnapping and the intensified fighting Sunday in Damascus and Aleppo, where rebels and reporters inside the city said Syrian jets were dropping bombs, highlight what analysts describe as a widening war.

U.S. officials said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would go to Istanbul next weekend to discuss the Syrian crisis with the Turkish government.

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