DUBAI Iran's foreign minister said some of the Iranians kidnapped by Syrian rebels last week are retired soldiers or Revolutionary Guards, Iranian media reported on Wednesday.
"Some of these beloved ones were on IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and military pensions ... and others were from other different departments," Ali Akbar Salehi said, according to Iran's student news agency ISNA. He denied they now had any military connection.
Syrian rebels said they kidnapped a busload of 48 Iranians on Saturday on suspicion of being military personnel. Tehran has said they were pilgrims visiting a Shi'ite shrine in Damascus.
Iran has steadfastly supported its ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his attempts to crush opposition to his rule.
Salehi's comments were published after he visited Tuesday to Turkey to ask Ankara to use its links with Syria rebels to secure the Iranians' release.
Salehi said retired government employees from a number of agencies had signed up to make pilgrimages to Damascus after recent fighting in the Syrian capital had subsided.
"After some time in which pilgrims from Iran were not being dispatched to Syria...we took steps to send retired forces from various organizations," Iran's state news agency IRNA quoted Salehi as saying.
"Some retired individuals from the Guards and army were dispatched to Syria to make a pilgrimage."
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Alistair Lyon)