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Syrian forces renew bombardment of Aleppo

Syrian forces have reportedly launched a new bombardment of rebel-held districts in Aleppo. Meanwhile, Iran has asked Turkey and Qatar to help secure the release of 48 Iranian pilgrims who were abducted near Damascus.

Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad used artillery, planes and a helicopter gunship to pound the rebel-held Salaheddin district of the commercial capital overnight on Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Clashes also erupted between troops and rebel fighters in the northern districts of Sukkari, Hamdaniyeh and Ansari, in what the Observatory described as some of the heaviest fighting since July 20.

On Saturday the Syrian government said it had regained control of the capital, Damascus, after several rebel-held districts were captured.

"We have cleansed all the districts of Damascus, from Al-Midan to Mazzeh, from Al-Hajar Al-Aswad to Qadam... to Tadamun," the last rebel bastion in the capital, a brigadier general who refused to give his name told journalists.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 70 people, including 14 government soldiers, were killed across the country on Saturday.

Iranian pilgrims kidnapped

Meanwhile Iranian state news agency IRNA reported Sunday that Tehran had asked Turkey and Qatar to help free 48 Iranian pilgrims who are being held in Syria.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi requested assistance from his Turkish and Qatari counterparts during separate phone conversations. In the past, Tehran, a close ally of President Assad, has criticized both countries for supporting the Syrian opposition. Iran has accused Turkey of supplying rebels with military and financial aid.

The plight of the Iranian pilgrims was confirmed by the Iranian consulate in Damascus on Saturday. It said they were abducted by "armed terrorist groups" when kidnappers stormed the bus they were travelling in as it made its way towards the capital's airport.

No group immediately claimed responsibility, although Iranian state media blamed opposition rebels fighting the Assad regime.

There has been no word yet on the fate of the pilgrims, but the Iranian embassy and Syrian officials say they are working to trace the kidnappers.

It's not the first time that Iranian nationals 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.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians used to travel to Syria every year to visit the gold-domed shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter. The numbers have dwindled, however, since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict 17 months ago.

ccp/tj (AFP, AP, Reuters, dpa)