BEIRUT – Renewed battles between government forces and rebel fighters rocked Damascus on Saturday, and clashes were reported in at least half a dozen other cities across the country.
The Syrian army hammered an area of the capital with artillery, mortar fire and helicopter rockets as rebels and soldiers battled near the presidential palace. Heavy fighting also continued unabated in the northern city of Aleppo, the country’s largest, which has become the scene of a raging urban war after remaining relatively quiet for much of Syria’s nearly 17-month-old uprising.
The violence Saturday left at least 145 people dead, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network. Syrian President Bashar Assad, however, stayed out of public view, as he has done since a bombing in Damascus on July 18 killed four top security officials.
Amid the turmoil, gunmen kidnapped 48 Iranian pilgrims from a tour group bus in Damascus. The group was on its way to a Muslim shrine when the bus was attacked, according to an Iranian Embassy official in Damascus quoted by Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency.
A week ago, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem had proclaimed the defeat of rebel forces in Damascus and predicted they would soon be defeated in Aleppo. But the renewed fighting in the capital, as well as the mass kidnapping, signaled the possibility that Syrian security forces are losing their grip on the city.
The Iranian Embassy official noted that Iran’s government has halted official tours to Syria, presumably because of the widespread violence, and that the pilgrims kidnapped Saturday had arranged a private tour.
A photo of the bus published by Fars News showed a cracked windshield with at least one bullet hole, suggesting that the gunmen had fired on the vehicle.
Iranians have been kidnapped before in Syria. Since the country’s uprising started in March 2011, 32 Iranians, including seven engineers, 22 pilgrims and three truck drivers, have been kidnapped there, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency. Although 27 of them have been released, five – two engineers and three drivers – are being held by armed groups.
None of the armed opposition groups in Syria had asserted responsibility for the kidnapping by late Saturday, but a Syrian government official quoted by Fars News blamed “terrorists linked to the Free Syrian Army.”