DUBAI (Reuters) - Up to half-a-dozen Iranian soldiers deployed in Syria have been captured by rebel forces, a senior Iranian lawmaker said on Monday, two days after the Iranian Revolutionary Guards confirmed losses in a battle near Aleppo.
Iran, along with Russia, has been a principal ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s five-year-old civil war, while Gulf Arab states and Western powers have supported various rebel factions.
Rebels seized the village of Khan Touman on Friday, some 15 km (9 miles) southwest of Aleppo, and killed several Iranian soldiers, dealing one of Tehran’s biggest losses in Syria.
“According to the latest numbers, 13 defenders of the shrine were killed, 18 were wounded and five to six were captured,” Esmail Kosari, chairman of the Iranian parliament’s defense committee, was quoted as saying by the Mizan Online news agency.
Shi‘ite Muslim Iran alludes to its troops in Syria as “defenders of the shrine”, a reference to the Sayeda Zeinab mosque near Damascus where a granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad is said to be buried.
It was the first time Iran had confirmed that any of its combatants had been taken prisoner in Syria. In December, Islamist rebels in Khan Touman said they had seized two Iranians but that was never confirmed by Tehran.
The latest assault on Khan Touman was launched by an alliance of Sunni Islamist rebels known as Jaish al-Fatah, including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, which has rejected diplomatic efforts to bring about a lasting ceasefire.
Jaish al-Fatah and affiliates published videos and photographs on social media of what appeared to be the bodies of Iranians or other Shi‘ite combatants killed in Khan Touman.
Earlier this week, the United States and Russia brokered a ceasefire in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and scene of some of its heaviest fighting. Iran said the truce had been used as a cover for rebels to regroup and attack.
In 2013, the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) freed about 50 detained Iranians in exchange for the release of more than 2,000 prisoners by government forces in a deal brokered by Turkey and Qatar.
At the time, Iran denied any military involvement in Syria and said the Iranian prisoners were religious pilgrims.
Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Sam Wilkin and Mark Heinrich