BEIRUT -- The case of dozens of Iranians abducted in Syria took a dramatic and potentially sinister turn Sunday, when a purported Syrian rebel commander appeared in a video calling the captives Iranian operatives on a “reconnaissance mission” in Damascus.
Iran says the hostages -- their numbers have variously been reported as 47 and 48 -- were all pilgrims visiting a revered Shiite shrine near the Syrian capital when they were kidnapped Saturday en route to their hotels.
Iran said Sunday that it had sought diplomatic help in securing its citizens’ release from the governments of Turkey and Qatar, two nations with close ties to the Syrian opposition.
Iran is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Rebels are fighting to oust Assad and end the more than 40-year rule of the Assad family.
The new video, posted on the website of Al Arabiya, the pan-Arab satellite network, features a purported rebel commander calling the captives Iranian shabiha, or militiamen, who were carrying out reconnaissance in Damascus. He seems to threaten their lives.
“We warn Iran that we will target all their assets in Syria,” declares the rebel commander, dressed in 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 with rifles hold up the 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 Guards, an elite military unit. The documents include the captive’s gun permits, the commander says.
Iran has repeatedly denied rebel allegations that Tehran has dispatched military and intelligence units to Syria to assist Assad in his effort to crush an almost 17-month-old rebellion.
The video could not be independently verified.
But Al Arabiya said it had 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 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 has reported that most of the previous kidnap victims grabbed by rebels have been released safely.
--Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: A screen grab from a video made available by Al-Arabiya apparently shows a man dressed as an officer of the Free Syrian Army and the kidnapped Iranians behind him. Credit: EPA