BEIRUT Syrian insurgents say they are holding seven Iranians hostage and will not release them until the government frees a rebel army officer and stops military operations in Homs, a centre of revolt in Syria's 10-month-old uprising.
A video released by the Farouq Battalion, part of the loosely organized rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), shows the seven Iranians, unshaven and wearing black shirts. They were sitting against a wall, a rifle propped up beside them.
It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the video, but the men's faces match those in pictures posted on Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency website.
Iran, a non-Arab Shi'ite Muslim power, is the closest regional ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
In the video, the rebels say the first five men abducted are Iranian soldiers and that their identity cards, held up to the camera but too blurry to read, show they are in the military.
Rebels who spoke to Reuters via Skype said the two other men taken in a second abduction were civilians. Iran's Mehr news agency said all seven men were engineers working at a power plant in Homs.
"We will not release them until the government stops its military operations against Homs and frees Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush," said an FSA fighter named Mazen.
Harmoush was the first senior Syrian officer to defect to the opposition. Activists say he was kidnapped in Turkey and taken back to Syria, where he appeared on state television retracting anti-Assad remarks. His whereabouts are unknown.
Homs has become the heart of a growing insurgency in Syria, where Assad's forces have been trying to crush what began as peaceful protests in March. More than 5,000 people have died in the crackdown, according to the United Nations.
Activists estimate that a third of all fatalities on both sides of the conflict have occurred in Homs.
"If the regime refuses to negotiate with us, we will keep them (the hostages) with us and we will try to bring more (Iranians) as well," the FSA member Mazen said.
On Thursday, Tehran said 11 Iranian pilgrims were kidnapped in Syria on their way to a Shi'ite shrine in Damascus.
Another FSA member called Abu Thaer also said the FSA was holding the seven Iranians hostage. But the official FSA spokesman said he could not comment because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Syria has been plagued by rising sectarian tensions between its Sunni Muslim majority, backbone of the uprising, and the Alawite minority sect. There have been several cases of kidnappings and killings based on religious identity, particularly in lawless Homs.
The hostage video showed one man, named as Haidar Ali, admitting to coordinating with Syria's Air Force Security unit.
"I and my team members, with the support of Syrian security-intelligence forces, were involved in suppressing and shooting ordinary Syrians ... and we killed a lot of people, including women and children, in the city of Homs," he said.
It was not possible to determine if the confession was forced.
"We urge Iran's supreme military leader (Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei to order the Iranian military personnel who suppress the Syrians to be repatriated from Syria, so we can also return home," Ali said.
(Reporting by Erika Solomon and Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Mark Heinrich)