Video released by Syrian rebels say they captured Iranian militiamen on a mission.
Free Syrian Army soldiers clashed with Syrian government forces in Aleppo. The rebels, who have received support from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, mostly are Sunni Muslims. President Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, which has the support of Iran.
BEIRUT, LEBANON - Iran said Sunday that it was seeking the aid of Turkey and Qatar, nations with close ties to the Syrian opposition, in securing the release of dozens of Iranian citizens kidnapped the day before in Syria.
But the case took a dramatic and potentially sinister turn when a purported Syrian rebel commander appeared in a video saying his brigade was holding the hostages. The commander labeled the captives Iranian militiamen captured while on a "reconnaissance mission" in Damascus, the Syrian capital.
Iran said the hostages -- their numbers have variously been reported as 47 and 48 -- were pilgrims visiting a Shiite Muslim shrine near Damascus when they were kidnapped on the way to their hotels.
Iran has repeatedly denied rebel allegations that it has sent military and intelligence units to Syria to aid Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The kidnappings, the latest example of how the civil strife in Syria is reverberating throughout the region, have distinct sectarian overtones. Most of Syria's rebels come from the nation's Sunni Muslim majority. Assad and much of his military leadership are members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Iran, a Shiite-led theocracy, is a staunch ally of Assad, as is Iran's protege in Lebanon, the Shiite Hezbollah movement. The Syrian rebels have received international support from Sunni-dominated nations, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The new video, posted on the website of Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab satellite channel, features the self-described rebel commander denouncing the captives as Iranian shabiha, or militiamen. He seems to threaten their lives, while praising God. "We warn Iran that we will target all their assets in Syria," declares the rebel commander.
In the video, he is standing in front of the alleged captives, who are seated on the floor. In the background, a pair of uniformed men hold up the Syrian 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.
The video could not be independently verified. But Al Arabiya said it 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 of Iranian operatives sent to Syria for "reconnaissance on the ground," the rebel commander, Abdel Nasser Shmeir, told Al Arabiya.
Col. Malik al-Kurdi, a deputy commander of the Free Syrian Army -- one of several competing umbrella groups involved in the fighting -- said the brigade taking responsibility for the kidnapping appeared to have been acting on its own.
The kidnapping and intensified fighting on Sunday in both Damascus and Aleppo, where rebels and reporters inside the city said Syrian jets were dropping bombs, highlight what analysts describe as a widening war.
The pro-government Al Watan newspaper said the Syrian army was bracing itself for a "decisive battle" to clear Aleppo, Syria's largest city, from rebels. It gave no timetable.
The New York Times and AP contributed to this report.