Forty-eight Iranian pilgrims were kidnapped from a bus in the Syrian capital, the Iranian embassy consular chief in Damascus told Iran’s state television.
“Armed terrorist groups kidnapped 48 Iranian pilgrims on their way to the airport,” Majid Kamjou told the IRIB network on Saturday, which gave the report on its website.
“There are no reports about the fate of the pilgrims. The embassy and Syrian officials are trying to trace the kidnappers,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians travel each year to Syria to visit a Shia pilgrimage site, the shrine of Sayeda Zaynab, in Damascus.
Tehran is the staunchest ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces are locked in a bloody conflict in Damascus and other cities against rebels his regime describes as “terrorists”.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Amman, the capital of neighbouring Jordan, said the pilgrims were travelling to the airport after visiting the shrine when they were kidnapped.
Our correspondent said that though the Syrian government was blaming what it “calls terrorists connected to the Free Syrian army”, it does not know “exactly who is holding the 48 [pilgrims]“.
“We don’t have any idea about their whereabouts or exactly who is holding them, but certainly it is not a great time for Iranian pilgrims to be visiting Syria right now,” she said.
Several dozen Iranian pilgrims and engineers were abducted in December and January, with most being released months later.
Earlier in May, 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims were also kidnapped by an armed group inside Syria.
The group first claimed the pilgrims were member of the Lebanese group, Hezbollah, but then back-tracked, claiming to be holding the men until the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, publicly apologises for voicing support for al-Assad.
A local Lebanese television network broadcast a telephone interview with one of the kidnappers who said the pilgrims were in good health and that they were “guests”, not hostages.
It was also revealed that they were being held in the area of Aazaz in Aleppo province.
Lebanese media reported on Saturday that several of the pilgrims had managed to escape from their kidnappers after shelling occurred in the area, but there was no independent confirmation of the reports.