By Emily Schneider
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East
DAMASCUS, Syria – In a YouTube video posted this week, Syrian rebels claim they are going to start executing the 48 Shiite pilgrims from Iran if Damascus and Tehran do not start complying with their demands.
The group of pilgrims was abducted in August. Every year, hundreds of thousands of Iranians travel to Syria to visit a Shia pilgrimage site in Damascus, the shrine of Sayeda Zainab. Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Amman, the capital of neighboring Jordan, said the pilgrims were traveling to the airport after visiting the shrine when they were kidnapped. Pilgrims continue to visit holy sites in spite of the increased danger and instability in Syria because they believe in the holiness of the journey.
In August, Iran’s Foreign Minsitry said it was working through diplomatic channels such as the United Nations, but was unable to negotiate their release.
In the video, a rebel officer clothed in camouflage attire addresses the camera. He is standing in front of the group of hostages while he speaks. Several other compatriots, some of them armed, are also present. In his statement, he claims that his group had negotiated with the Syrian authorities regarding the hostage’s release in exchange for the release of rebels held in Syrian government custody. But, he says those efforts failed “because of the reluctance of both the Iranian and Syrian regimes.”
“Unless they start releasing our people from their prisons and cease the shelling of the innocent civilians in our cities and the ongoing random slaughter, within 48 hours, starting from the moment this statement is read, we inform you that for every martyr who gets killed by the Syrian regime, we will kill one of the Iranian hostages,” he says.
Specifically, the rebels demand that Syria’s army withdraw from the Eastern Ghuta area of Damascus province, a rebel commander said on Friday.
“We gave the regime 48 hours starting yesterday to withdraw completely from the Eastern Ghuta area,” Abul Wafa, commander of the rebels’ Revolutionary Military Council in Damascus province, told AFP via the Internet. “We also have other secret, military demands. If the regime does not fulfill them, we will start finishing off the hostages.”
After the group was abducted, a local Lebanese television network broadcast a telephone interview with one of the kidnappers, who said the pilgrims were in good health and that they were “guests,” not hostages. The phone call also revealed that the hostages were being kept in the Aazaz area of the Aleppo province at that time.
This is the second video in which the Syrian opposition used the group as leverage. Initially, there was another video posted in which members of the al-Baraa Brigade of the Free Syrian Army said that they had “captured 48 of the shabiha [militiamen] of Iran who were on a reconnaissance mission in Damascus.” That video also warned that the rebels “will target all its installations in Syria… The fate of all Iranians working in Syria will be just like the fate of those, either prisoners, or dead.”
At the time, there was some debate as to the validity of that video. For now, however, the same group of pilgrims is being touted as a means of negotiating with the Syrian and Iranian governments.
For further information, please see:
CNN – Video: Syrian Rebels Say They Will Kill Iranian Hostages – 5 October 2012
Daily Star – Syria Rebels Threaten to Execute Iranians – 5 October 2012
Gulf Times — Syria Rebels Threaten to Kill Iranians Held Hostage — 5 October 2012
Al Jazeera – Syrian Rebels Say Hostages ‘Iranian Soldiers’ – 5 August 2012