Aug 08 2012
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WSJ(8/8) Tensions Rise Over Iranian Hostages
Wednesday, Aug 08, 2012
(From THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)
By Farnaz Fassihi
BEIRUT -- A band of 48 Iranians being held hostage by Syria's rebel army traveled from Tehran on a trip organized by a travel agency owned by the elite troops who support and protect the Iranian regime, people familiar with the trip said.
That connection -- denied by Iran, a staunch supporter of the Assad regime -- suggests the hostages have strong ties to Iran's elite Republican Guard Corps, as the rebels claim. Tehran, which says the hostages are religious pilgrims, warned it would hold the U.S. responsible for their fate and vowed to stand by Syria's government amid a growing civil war.
The kidnapped 48 Iranian men in Syria traveled from Tehran to Damascus on Saturday as part of a large contingent on a trip organized by a Revolutionary Guards Corps travel agency, according to people familiar with the trip.
"Everyone on this trip was either a Guard or a Basij militia. This wasn't a regular tour group," said an employee of the tour agency that organized the trip, reached by telephone. Agency officials could not be reached.
Samen Al Aemmeh, the tour operating company, is not open to the Iranian public and solely caters to members and families of Guards or the plainclothes Basij militia. The company is also a subsidiary of Samen Al Aemmeh Industries, one of IRGC's largest umbrella groups, which has been sanctioned under United Nations Security Council resolutions and by the U.S. Treasury for its role in missile building and Iran's nuclear program.
A member of the IRGC inside Iran said Tehran had stepped up its technical and training assistant to Syria in recent weeks. He said IRGC members were traveling to Syria to train the army on guerrilla warfare modeled after IRGC's battles with Kurdish and Baluchi separatist groups along Iran's borders. The battle of Aleppo, for example, is a classic example of IRGC tactics, the source said; the army intentionally lets rebels gain territory of neighborhoods then closes in on them by ground and aerial offensives.
Iran's Foreign Ministry initially said the hostages were entering Syria but then official media reported they were leaving the revered shrine of the Shiites saint Seyedeh Zainab for the airport. Iran has officially banned tours and pilgrimages to Syria, and regular tour companies have long halted their offers to Damascus. Devout Shiites seldom travel during Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, because a long trip would mean breaking their fast. There were no women or children traveling with the group.
Like most Revolutionary Guards business entities, Samen's interests are spread widely from defense technology to banking, hospitals, publishing and travel agency.
The Free Syrian Army brigade that holds the hostages has posted a video of the men, burly and bearded, huddled on the floor and one of them showed ID cards that the rebel said were proof of his IRGC affiliation and a permit to carry a weapon.
The hostages have presented Iran with a foreign policy crisis as it and forced it to reach out to countries like Qatar and Turkey, which have staunchly backed the Syrian opposition, and have been at odds with the Islamic Republic's continued support of Mr. Assad.
Saeed Jalili, head of Iran's National Security Council and top nuclear negotiator, traveled to Damascus on Tuesday and met with President Assad. Mr. Jalili said Iran would not let its close partnership with the Syrian leadership be shaken by the uprising or external foes. "Iran won't allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way," Syrian television quoted Mr. Jalili as saying.
The footage of the meeting came a day after the defection of Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab on Monday, and was the first broadcast of Mr. Assad for two weeks.
Heavily armed government troops have been steadily shelling rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo, and clashes continued Tuesday in the historic city center. That suggests the rebels were making some inroads in Aleppo, which lies just south of the Turkish border.
More than 1,300 Syrians fled to Turkey overnight to escape the civil war as rebels tried to expand their hold inside Syria's largest city.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday condemned the presence of proxy groups fueling the battle in Syria and said it could plunge the country into sectarian war.
"Those who are attempting to exploit the situation by sending in proxies or terrorist fighters must realize that will not be tolerated, first and foremost by the Syrian people," said Mrs. Clinton in South Africa.
She also said the U.S. and other nations need to quickly come up with a transition plan that ensures that Syrian state institutions remain intact once Mr. Assad loses his grip on power.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
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