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Iranian pilgrims kidnapped as Syria clashes escalate

A party of Iranian pilgrims has been abducted in Damascus while violence in besieged Aleppo has increased. Meanwhile, Kofi Annan's resignation as the special envoy for Syria has not broken the diplomatic stalemate.

Forty-eight Iranians were kidnapped in Damascus while on board a bus on Saturday, the Iranian embassy's consular chief in Damascus told Iranian media.

"Armed terrorist groups kidnapped 48 Iranian pilgrims on their way to the airport," Majid Kamjou told the IRIB network.

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Syria: battles raging in Damaskus and Aleppo

"There are no reports about the fate of the pilgrims. The embassy and Syrian officials are trying to trace the kidnappers," Kamjou said.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians travel to Syria every year to visit the Shrine of Zaynab in Damascus, a Shiite pilgrimage site.

It is not the first time that nationals of Iran have been targeted in the conflict-ridden country. Eleven Iranians pilgrims were kidnapped in February, after dozens were abducted in December and January as well. Most were later freed.

The Iranian government is Syrian President Bashar Assad's staunchest foreign ally. There are also shared religious commonalities between Assad and the Iranian regime. Iran is a Shiite country and Assad's family is Alawite, a Shiite offshoot. The majority of rebels are Sunni, which constitute the country's religious majority.

Fighting in Aleppo escalates

The development unfolded as Syrian government forces on Saturday intensified their onslaught on rebel-held areas in the country's second city of Aleppo. The battle for the city, which has been raging for a week, could decide the outcome of the 17-month conflict in Syria.

Fighter jets and helicopter gunships were deployed in the northern section of the city and rebels made a bid for the state television building, according to the watchdog Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"Rebel forces planted explosives (at the TV station), and regime forces shelled the area" before the rebels withdrew, said the Observatory.

The watchdog added that the southern suburb of Tadamun had experienced some of the "most violent" shelling that the capital has experienced since last month, when the regime first launched a major crackdown on rebels there. At least 13 people are reported to have been killed in Saturday's violence.

Diplomatic stalemate

In diplomatic circles, there was no sign that Kofi Annan's resignation as the special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League on Thursday had stirred greater willingness for nations to find common ground on the Syrian crisis. China on Saturday reaffirmed its opposition to foreign intervention, claiming it was up to the Syrian people themselves to agree on a political solution.

"Those countries which have made unfounded criticism about China's position ... have, in pursuit of their own geopolitical interests in Syria, tried to hinder or undermine the political settlement process and are trying to shift responsibility for the difficulties on to other countries," foreign ministry official Wang Kejian said at a news conference.

Iranalso charged the US on Saturday with being driven by its own interests in the Middle East.

"America's technique for interfering in internal affairs of countries has changed," said a foreign ministry spokesman. "Instead of entering into expensive and long wars, they support the fostering of civil wars in the countries they are interested in."

sej/slk (AFP, Reuters, dpa)

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