Iran's foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, has directly appealed to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for help in securing the release of more than 50 Iranian nationals seized in Syria and Libya over the past week, saying he feared many of them could be killed in Syria in the coming hours.
The request came just a day after three of 48 hostages captured Saturday by rebel forces in Damascus were reported killed during a government air attack on rebel positions. It is part of a broader diplomatic effort by Tehran to secure the hostages release.
Salehi today visited Turkey to press the government help rescue the Iranians while the Iranian government warned the United States, which has provided limited support to the rebels, that it would be held responsible for the fate of the Iranians. Iran's security chief, Saeed Jalili, meanwhile met with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, where he vowed Iran's support for the beleaguered Syrian leader.
The Syrian rebels confirmed that the three Iranians had been killed and threatened to kill the others unless Syrian authorities halted their air assault. "They were killed when the aircraft attacked. One of the houses they were in collapsed over their heads," rebel spokesman Moutassam al-Ahmad told Reuters. "We will kill the rest if the army does not stop its assault. They have one hour."
The Free Syrian Army maintains that the Iranians are members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps who had been collecting intelligence on Syria's rebel movement. The Iranians have insisted that they were Shiite pilgrims traveling to Sayida Zeinab, a Muslim shrine outside of Damascus. They were abducted on their way to the airport in Damascus on Saturday, according to Salehi.
In a letter to Ban, Salehi said that seven members of the Iranian Red Crescent Society had also been abducted in Benghazi on July 31. He said they were in Libya at the invitation of the Libyan Red Cross when they were kidnapped.
But he expressed particular concern over the fate of the Syrian nationals in Damascus, saying "the hostage takers have threatened to kill the remaining captives in the coming hours."
"The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran calls for the immediate release of its abducted nationals and is of the view that using the hostages as human shields violates the international law and human rights of these innocent civilians," Salehi said. "I would like to seek the cooperation and the good offices of your excellency for securing the release of these hostages."
A spokesman for Ban said the U.N. was studying the letter and had not yet responded. But Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Ban, said that the U.N. Supervisory Mission in Syria is playing no role in the negotiations for the Iranian's release.
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Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.