Pilgrims seized outside Damascus

Gunmen have snatched 47 Iranian pilgrims just outside Damascus in a brazen attack that revealed the growing instability at the centre of President Bashar Assad's power.

The kidnap came as Syrian troops moved on Saturday to crush one of the last rebel-dominated neighbourhoods in the capital, shelling the area heavily.

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

The pilgrims were on a bus taking them from the suburb of Sayeda Zeinab, about 10 miles south of Damascus, to the airport to return home when they were kidnapped, according to Iranian state news agency IRNA.

Mainly-Shiite Iran is a close ally of the beleaguered Syrian government, which is dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.

Syria has long welcomed Iranian pilgrims visiting the ornate gold-domed shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter; up to 700,000 pilgrims used to come every year, IRNA said, although the number has fallen precipitously since the 17-month uprising that has killed an estimated 19,000.

On Saturday night Iran's semi-official Fars news agency announced that Syrian forces had freed the hostages, but cited no source. There was no confirmation from the Syrians. The kidnapping underscores the inability of the regime, which is fighting rebels in all the major cities of the country, to even control the immediate environs of the capital city.

Just a few miles from the site of the kidnapping, regime forces encircled the southern Damascus neighbourhood of Tadamon, a bastion of rebel support. Heavy explosions shook the capital and plumes of smoke rose from the neighbourhood that was attacked by regime forces the night before.

"We heard heavy bombing since dawn," a witness in Damascus said. "Helicopters are in the sky." By nightfall the state media reported the whole capital to be in government hands, but such announcements have in the past proved premature.

The kidnapping was the largest such abduction of Iranian pilgrims, although it was not the first. In January, gunman kidnapped 11 Iranian pilgrims driving from the Turkish border to Damascus. At least two were later freed with Turkish mediation. Seven Iranian engineers building a power plant in central Syria were kidnapped in December and the Free Syrian Army claimed responsibility, accusing them of aiding Assad's regime. At least four have been released.