REPORTING FROM TEHRAN -- The families of seven Iranians abducted in the Syrian city of Homs in December staged a rally outside of the U.N office in Tehran on Wednesday to draw attention to their plight during a visit by U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan.
The case of the seven men, described by Iranian officials and in local media reports as engineers, has been shrouded in uncertainty, with Iran backtracking twice over the past months on reports that the group had been released.
Taking advantage of Annan's meetings in Tehran to urge Iranian support for his Syrian peace plan, the families called on the former U.N. chief to investigate the case as soon as possible and asked international agencies to help secure a speedy release of their relatives, according to a report on the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
A photo published by IRNA showed the demonstrators wearing sunglasses and holding signs in English saying "Free Iranian hostages" and "Free Iranian engineers."
According to the state-run news agency, the seven Iranians were abducted in Homs, an opposition stronghold where Syrian government troops have shelled rebellious areas and clashed with opposition fighters.
Iran's English-language Press TV said five were kidnapped early in the morning of Dec. 21 when a group of gunmen attacked their convoy as it was en route to the Jandar power plant in the Homs province -- a plant that had been under construction by Iranian technicians for two years, according to Press TV.
Two other Iranians who had gone to search for the missing group were also abducted. There have been no reports on the whereabouts of the seven men.
A previously unknown group calling itself the "Movement Against the Expansion of Shiism in Syria" claimed responsibility for the kidnappings in a statement received by the Agence France-Presse news agency in January.
Syria's rebel Free Syrian Army has previously said it captured five members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, but it was not clear whether the rebel group meant the supposed engineers or another group.
Syrian rebels accuse Iran of aiding Syrian authorities in a ferocious government crackdown on dissent.
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran
Photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's official website shows Ahmadinejad, left, greeting special envoy Kofi Annan on Qeshm Island, Iran, on Wednesday. Credit: Iran's official presidential website