REPORTING FROM TEHRAN -- Five Iranian engineers who reportedly were kidnapped in Syria three months ago are free, Iranian media reported Thursday.
State media reported that the Iranian engineers were heading to work at the Jendar power plant in Homs, a central city that has been an epicenter of the uprising, when they were kidnapped in December.
The five engineers were in Turkey on Thursday waiting to return to Iran, according to Fars News Agency. Iranian media reported that they were released with the help of Turkish officials.
Iranian media have also reported kidnappings of pilgrims traveling to holy sites in Syria and said seven religious pilgrims had also been freed Thursday. Their location was unclear.
The kidnappings have been the subject of wildly conflicting media reports: Earlier reports said seven engineers had been abducted, not five. A February report said the engineers had been freed, only to backtrack and say they were still captive.
Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency reported that the kidnappings were carried out by opposition groups revolting against Syrian President Bashar Assad. It quoted the Iranian embassy in Damascus as saying that “armed gangs” in Syria practice extortion and passport theft.
Iran is an Assad government ally and has strenuously defended Syria, which faces mounting international pressure to cease its crackdown on a yearlong rebellion. The Syrian regime has been condemned by the United Nations for rampant human rights abuses as it tried to crush the uprising. The Assad regime argues that it is defending itself against armed terrorists.
Some of the rebels have been criticized for human rights abuses as well: Human Rights Watch recently raised concerns about kidnappings and alleged executions of security personnel and civilians by some members of the decentralized Syrian opposition.
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Emily Alpert in Los Angeles