Free Syrian Army Kidnapped Iranian Pilgrims Near Damascus, Report Says

Iranian semi-official Fars news agency quotes Syrian official as identifying the assailants in the reported attack on a bus near Damascus as being members of the main opposition faction.

The Forty-eight Iranians who were reportedly kidnapped in Syria earlier Saturday were taken by the Free Syrian Army, the Iranian Fars news agency said later in the day.

Earlier, Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted an unnamed official in Iran's embassy in Damascus as saying that the pilgrims were seized by "armed groups" on the Damascus airport road as they returned from a religious shrine.

The embassy knows the whereabouts of the pilgrims and is pursuing "relevant channels" to free them, IRNA quoted the official as saying.

Syria's state television channel reported that "armed terrorist groups" had kidnapped the pilgrims who were on a bus in the Damascus suburbs and said the relevant parties were dealing with the situation.

Later in the day, however, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency cited a Syrian official as saying that the attack was conducted by soldiers from the Free Syrian Army, the main armed opposition group working to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"The terrorists affiliated with the so-called Free Army are in charge of the abduction of the Iranian pilgrims," a Syrian government official told Fars.

The official said that, while he could not yet personally identify the assailants, "the Syrian government has been informed of the development and is following up on the issue very seriously."

"Yet, we know that abductors are members of the so-called Syrian Free Army," he added.

The incident is not the first time Iranian pilgrims have been the target of kidnappings in Syria, where President Bashar Assad has been battling a 17-month-old revolt against his rule.

Syrians opposed to Assad come mainly from the country's Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad and his ruling family comes from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Iran is the Middle East's Shi'ite power.

Eleven Iranian pilgrims were kidnapped in February, days after the abduction of another group of pilgrims by an armed group in Syria. Five Iranian technicians were also kidnapped in the flashpoint city of Homs in December.

Iran has condemned what it calls foreign interference in Syrian affairs and has praised reforms Assad has pledged to commit to.

Syria rebels - Reuters - 3.8.2012