BEIRUT — Armed kidnappers abducted 48 Iranian pilgrims who were in Syria visiting a major Shiite Muslim shrine, Iranian media outlets reported Saturday.
The official Iranian Republic News Agency reported that the pilgrims were abducted on the way to the airport in Damascus, the Syrian capital. The details of their abduction remained unclear.
It was the latest instance in which Iranian citizens had been kidnapped in strife-torn Syria, where mostly Sunni Muslim rebels are seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Iranian government is a major international ally of Assad, whose forces have been trying to put down a rebellion now in its 17th month. Iranian officials have steadfastly backed Assad’s argument that his government is under attack from "terrorists" acting under a "foreign conspiracy."
Syrian rebels say they are seeking to end the bloody and autocratic domination of the Assad family, which has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians travel each year to the Sayeda Zeinab shrine, a major Shiite monument south of Damascus. The shrine is said to be the burial site of the granddaughter of the prophet Mohammed.
Shiite pilgrims have often been targeted by Sunni extremists in neighboring Iraq, and some fear a similar scenario unfolding in Syria. The United Nations and human rights groups have expressed fears that Syria’s civil conflict may become more sectarian in nature.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran