Iran has asked Turkey and Qatar to help free 48 Iranian pilgrims who are being held in Syria after kidnappers stormed their bus in Damascus, state media reported on Sunday.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi telephoned his Turkish and Qatari counterparts, Ahmet Davutoglu and Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir Al Thani, late Saturday to request his assistance, the state television website reported.
“During a telephone conversation, Ali Akbar Salehi asked Ahmet Davutoglu for Turkey's immediate intervention to liberate the Iranian pilgrims held hostage in Syria,” it said.
Davutoglu responded by promising “to study the issue and to carry out efforts as in previous cases,” it said.
Turkey played a role earlier this year in helping to free several other Iranians who had been kidnapped in Syria.
Iran’s embassy in Damascus and Syria’s state SANA news agency said on Saturday that the 48 Iranian pilgrims were abducted by “armed terrorist groups” as they were in a bus on their way to the airport in Damascus.
The 48 Iranians were planning to visit a shrine on the outskirts of the Syrian capital of particular significance to Shiite Muslims. Up to 700,000 Iranians used to travel to Syria each year to visit the Sayyida Zeinab shrine, but that number has dropped since the outbreak of violence in March last year.
“We still do not have any information about the fate of this group of Iranian pilgrims,” Majid Kamjoo said. “The consular section of the Iranian embassy in Syria is seeking to trace the kidnappers of the Iranian pilgrims with the cooperation of Syrian officials.”
The bulk of the Syrians conducting a 17-month insurgency against Assad belong to the Sunni Muslim majority, while Assad comes from the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam which is the main religion of Iran.
Several groups of Iranians have been abducted in Syria since the uprising began.
Five Iranian engineers were kidnapped in the flashpoint city of Homs in December. Iranian media said that they had all been released by last month. A group of pilgrims were snatched in January and another in February. Most have been released, Iranian media reported.