Beirut: Amidst fears that the Syrian Army will launch a full-scale assault imminently, fighting intensified in the country’s biggest city, Aleppo.
As rebels reportedly prepared for a strong offensive in Aleppo, a news report said that the Syrian Army had pushed rebels from a last stronghold in Damascus.
The renewed battles came as gunmen snatched 47 Iranian pilgrims just outside Damascus on Saturday in a brazen attack that revealed the growing instability at the centre of President Bashar Assad`s power.
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 (16 kilometres) south of Damascus, to the airport to return home when they were kidnapped, according to the Iranian state news agency, IRNA.
Mainly Shi’ite 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.
Late Saturday, Iran`s semiofficial Fars news agency announced that Syrian forces had freed the hostages, but cited no source. There was no confirmation from the Syrians.
Still, 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.
Also on Saturday, China said the West should be blamed for obstructing diplomatic and political efforts to restore order and peace in Syria.
Turkey reported the defection of another Syrian general, along with five colonels who came over the border with a group of refugees.
The general would be the 29th to defect since the start of the uprising. Despite the defections, however, the Syrian Army has largely remained intact.
(With Agency inputs)