BEIRUT — Iran said Sunday that it was seeking the aid of Turkey and Qatar, nations with close ties to the Syrian opposition, in securing the release of dozens of Iranian citizens kidnapped the day before in Syria.
But the case took a dramatic and potentially sinister turn when a purported Syrian rebel commander appeared in a video saying his brigade was holding the hostages. The commander labeled the captives Iranian militiamen nabbed while on a “reconnaissance mission” in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Iran says the hostages — their numbers have variously been reported as 47 and 48 — are pilgrims who were visiting a revered Shiite Muslim shrine near Damascus when they were kidnapped en route to their hotels.
Iran has repeatedly denied rebel allegations that it has dispatched military and intelligence units to Syria to assist Syrian President Bashar Assad in his effort to crush an almost 17-month-old rebellion.
The kidnappings, the latest example of how the civil strife in Syria is reverberating throughout the region, have distinct sectarian overtones.
Most of Syria’s rebels come from the nation’s Sunni Muslim majority. Assad and much of his military leadership are members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Iran, a Shiite-led theocracy, is a staunch ally of Assad, as isTehran’sLebanese protege, the Shiite Hezbollah movement.
The Syrian rebels have received international support from Sunni-dominated nations, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Turkey has allowed opposition forces to use its territory bordering Syria as a logistics center, while Qatar has provided financial aid and possibly arms to the rebels.
The new video, posted on the website of Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab satellite channel, features the self-described rebel commander denouncing the captives as Iranian shabiha, or militiamen. He seems to threaten their lives, while praising God.
“We warn Iran that we will target all their assets in Syria,” declares the rebel commander, who is wearing military fatigues.
He is standing in front of the alleged captives, who are seated on the floor. In the background, a pair of uniformed men hold up the Syrian rebel flag.
The commander displays what he calls the personal documents of one of the captives, whom he calls an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, an elite military unit. The documents include the captive’s gun permits, the commander says.
The video could not be independently verified. But Al Arabiya said it later interviewed the commander of the rebels’ Al Baraa Brigade, the group said to have captured the Iranians, and he gave a similar account. The captives, including an Afghan interpreter, were part of a 150-strong group of Iranian operatives sent to Syria for “reconnaissance on the ground,” the rebel commander, Abdel Nasser Shmeir, told Al Arabiya.
The hostages represent the latest and the largest group of Iranians reported kidnapped in strife-ridden Syria. The Iranian media have reported that most of the previous kidnap victims have been released safely. However, a pair of Iranians whom Tehran calls engineers are believed to remain captive more than seven months after they were abducted near the city of Homs.
Kidnapping, sometimes with sectarian overtones, has become a common feature of Syria’s civil strife. The rebels and military periodically exchange captives in informal arrangements.
In May, Syrian insurgents reportedly abducted 11 Lebanese Shiites who identified themselves as religious pilgrims. Rebels accused several of membership in Hezbollah. Their continuing detention has elevated tensions in Lebanon, where relatives have blocked roads demanding their release.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s semiofficial Anatolia news agency reported Sunday that among the latest military figures to defect to the opposition was Syria’s first man in space, Gen. Mohammed Ahmed Fares, a onetime military aviator. The native of Aleppo was aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in July 1987, spending eight days in the Soviet space station Mir as part of a Soviet-Syrian cooperative venture.
Many Syrians recall Fares’ telephone conversation from the spaceship with then-Syrian President Hafez Assad, late father of the current president.
“I see my beloved country,” Fares responded when the president asked him what he saw from space. “I see its great coasts and green beautiful mountains, I see the plains and the proud Mountain of Sheikh and our Golan Heights. I see every inch.”
Special correspondents Rima Marrouch in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.