Forty eight Iranian pilgrims have been kidnapped from a bus in the vicinity of a shrine near the Syrian capital Damascus, reports say.
Iranian diplomats blamed the abduction, from close to the Shia shrine of Sayyida Zainab, on “armed groups”.
Syrian state television later gave the same account of the incident.
Meanwhile, fresh fighting has been reported around Damascus, and in the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels are trying to secure their positions.
The Iranian consul in Damascus said the whereabouts of the abducted pilgrims was known.
Syrian state-run news agency Sana said the Iranians had been kidnapped by “armed terrorist groups” and that Syrian authorities were “working to handle the situation”.
Thousands of Iranians travel each year to Syria to visit the pilgrimage site in the mostly Shia district of Sayyida Zainab, which has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks.
There have been several other reports of groups of Iranian pilgrims being kidnapped in Syria in recent months, with most later being freed.
In May, 11 Lebanese Shia pilgrims were abducted in Syria while returning from Iran.
They were released after being held for three days, but the incident sparked violence across Lebanon, where the crisis in Syria has heightened sectarian tensions.
Forty eight Iranian pilgrims have been kidnapped from a bus in the vicinity of a shrine near the Syrian capital Damascus
Meanwhile, fresh fighting was reported in Syria’s two biggest cities on Saturday.
Most areas of Aleppo where rebels are entrenched have been bombarded by government forces and clashes have been reported in several districts.
Video footage posted by activists showed a military jet flying over what they said was the rebel-held quarter of Salah al-Din followed by a loud explosion.
Activists reported clashes in several areas too, including around the officers’ club and a political security headquarters.
Government forces seem to now be pushing harder in the crucial battle for Aleppo.
Syrian state television reported that troops had inflicted huge losses on what it called “terrorist mercenaries” in Salah al-Din and in other nearby areas too, our correspondent adds.
There have been skirmishes in which rebels have done rather well, he says, seizing three police stations and retaking a fourth on Friday, and rebels are “incrementally” increasing the size of the area they hold.
The rebels have “remarkable” defence capability in Salah al-Din where government tanks had been trying to enter, but as an area full of narrow twisting lanes, it is perfect for guerrilla warfare, he adds.
However, the full thrust of the armour and the artillery from the regime side has not been seen yet, he adds.
The focus of the fighting is also on the southern edge of Damascus where shelling and gunfire were reported from the Tadamon quarter, despite it having been earlier stormed by government forces.
Shooting and explosions were also being heard in some central parts of the capital, and activists reported clashes too on the western side of the city, in and around Dumar.
Earlier, Russia and China condemned a UN General Assembly resolution passed on Friday which criticized the Security Council for failing to halt the violence in Syria.
Moscow’s UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters the resolution was one-sided and supported the armed opposition.
Western nations praised the resolution, which passed by 133 votes to 12 with 31 abstentions.
It criticizes both the UN’s own Security Council and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for its use of violence.
The assembly debated the resolution, which was proposed by Saudi Arabia, shortly after the resignation of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and the failure of his six-point peace plan.
Activists say more than 20,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in 17 months of unrest.
Young Iranians must adopt complicated and creative behavior to navigate around restrictions on their private lives, says journalist Kamin Mohammadi, writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in Iran.
Iran, in her long history, has been no stranger to repression and dictatorship, mostly from invaders. Iranians quickly developed the habit of thriving when times are tough, of somehow finding a way around the obstacles.
“We are long used to not being direct, to never approaching things straight. We have learnt to shimmy our ways around obstacles, and to approach fulfilling the simplest desires of life with creativity and imagination,” Kamin Mohammadi says.
Nowhere is this creativity and imagination more obvious that in the relations governing men and women.
“Before I returned to Iran after nearly 20 years away, a very well-informed and well-travelled friend said to me: <<But they don’t drink or have sex before marriage in Iran>>.
“When I arrived in Iran, and especially after I had travelled back there often enough to be absorbed into the fabric of Iranian life like a local, I realised that statement could not be further from the truth.
“Everywhere I went I was offered <<a real drink>> by Iranians who had become specialist home brewers, so good at turning hops into beer or grapes into wine in their basements that some still carry on these home-brewing concerns now that branded alcohol is easily available on the black market,” Kamin Mohammadi says.
Young Iranians must adopt complicated and creative behavior to navigate around restrictions on their private lives, says journalist Kamin Mohammadi
As for dating and sex – well, what would you expect of a population that is overwhelmingly young? Some 70% of Iranians are under the age of 35 and this army of young people has grown up under the restrictions – and its curious contradictions – and they are used to bending the rules. The state runs to keep up.
“When I first visited Iran in 1996, and I wanted to walk down the street with a male family friend my mother considered it judicious to come with us, in case we were stopped and asked to prove our relationship to each other. But as the years passed, my expeditions with this male family friend became a telling marker of how the regime was changing.
“Just a couple of years after that first trip, my friend and I would walk around Tehran together and soon we were roaming the streets endlessly – in order to have some privacy.
“Our first visits were to newly-opened internet cafes – where I saw booths crammed with youngsters poring over the screen together. Most popular were – and remain – chat rooms where people can meet and chat – and even set up secret dates,” the journalist says.
For the first time in Iranian history, the people have a private space – a room of their own albeit in cyberspace – in which they can interact with others, usually of the opposite sex, without being watched, restricted or punished.
“When my friend and I were able to stray further from home, we had to take taxis home. In Iran, as well as private taxis, there are shared taxis called savaris which you can share with as many other people as are going your way. The driver squeezes in as many people as he can and here the normal rules of the Islamic Republic – so keen on gender segregation – seem to go out of the window.
“Although people try to arrange themselves so that strange men and women are not sitting on top of each other, my friend and I found ourselves sitting so close that I could feel his heart beating, the closest we had ever come physically.
“One friend, Iranian-born and brought up in the West like myself, told me of a romance she had had with a young man from Tehran which consisted purely of them riding around in savaris. They would ride from one end of town to another, asking the driver to take no other fares when they wanted to talk, and asking him to take other fares when they wanted an excuse to get physically close to each other,” she says.
The creative possibilities of the car have probably not been thus explored since America invented The Teenager in the 1950s. In Iran now, the car has become a neutral space, a place that the people – not just the young – can escape from the ever-present eyes of the family, society and the regime.
The mobile phone is another space in which young Iranians have found their creativity. During evening strolls with my friend, his phone would start to ping insistently. He explained to me they were Bluetooth requests to link phones with his. Those within Bluetooth reach would try to connect, to exchange numbers. This marks definitively the first time that Iranians – indeed many in the Middle East – have been able to go outside the control of the family to choose their own romantic interest.
“Another friend, a veteran of Silicon Valley who runs an internet company in Iran, once told me that we have the most creative computer minds because, from a young age, they start to crack the censorship codes that ban certain websites.
“I am no prophet, but I would guess that where a sexual revolution takes place, a social revolution can follow. The people of Iran, their creativity honed from thousands of years of repression, are adept at doing what they want while appearing to follow the rules.
“Their inventiveness and creative solutions to restrictive life have sharpened and honed their brains, and, I believe, will eventually also chip away at the restrictions of the regime until they become meaningless.
“When the day comes that Iran enjoys its own brand of democracy, the extra dimensions this constant weaving around the rules has given the Iranian character will help it to achieve truly great things in the world,” said Kamin Mohammadi.
According to Thai officials, a man thought to be Iranian has had both legs blown off after attempting to throw a bomb at police in the country’s capital Bangkok.
Two other explosions were reported in the same busy commercial district of Bangkok, injuring four other people.
Police said one blast took place at the house the injured man rented with other Iranians. One of those men also threw a bomb at a taxi in the capital.
Last month, the US embassy warned of possible attacks in Bangkok.
The warning over possible attacks last month was of attacks perhaps against Israeli and American interests, and a man has been arrested in connection with those and some materials were found.
The Bangkok blasts come just a day after two bomb attacks targeted Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia.
Israel has accused Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah of orchestrating the attacks. Iran denied the allegations.
According to Thai officials, a man thought to be Iranian has had both legs blown off after attempting to throw a bomb at police in the country’s capital Bangkok
There is no sign of who the attackers in Bangkok might have been targeting, but the timing and the link to Iran will raise suspicions that this might be part of a coordinated campaign.
Israel’s press says the attacks on embassy staff in India and Georgia raised fears they were the start of a wave of attacks on Israeli targets.
On Tuesday, Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak accused Iran of being behind the Bangkok blast, the AP news agency reports.
The explosion “proves once again that Iran and its proxies continue to perpetrate terror”, he is quoted as saying.
He said Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah were “unrelenting terror elements endangering the stability of the region and endangering the stability of the world”.
Ehud Barak is on an official visit in Singapore. A statement issued by the Israeli defense ministry noted that Barak was in Bangkok on Sunday, AP reports.
Police said the first explosion happened around 14:20, local time, at a house in the Ekamai area in central Bangkok, which the three Iranians were believed to have rented for a month.
Two men managed to escape the explosion that severely damaged the house, according to police, but a third man who suffered minor injuries tried to hail a taxi. When the taxi refused to stop for him, he threw at least one bomb at it.
There was a third explosion when the same man then attempted to throw another bomb at police, but missed. The man lost his legs when the device blew up.
He is said to be receiving emergency treatment in hospital. Thai media said that an identity card found nearby indicated the man could be of Iranian origin.
A police forensics team was examining the house and reports said that police used a high pressure water cannon to defuse another explosive found there.
The Thai authorities say they have detained an Iranian man at Bangkok’s Airport for questioning, but it was not immediately clear if he was one of the two other suspects.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra urged the public to remain calm.
On Monday, an Israeli diplomat was injured in a car bomb attack in the Indian capital, Delhi. It seems a motorcycle rider came from behind and attached an explosive device to the back door of the diplomat’s car.
At almost the same time, a bomb beneath an Israeli diplomat’s car in Tbilisi, Georgia, was found and defused.