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Iran asks for help after dozens of pilgrims kidnapped in Syria

Intense clashes between Syrian rebels and government forces continue. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

DUBAI - Tehran on Sunday asked Turkey and Qatar to help secure the release of 48 Iranians who were kidnapped by gunmen while on a pilgrimage in the Syrian capital Damascus, Iran's state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday.

The busload of abducted pilgrims is the latest in a string of kidnappings of visitors from the Islamic Republic, a country allied to President Bashar Assad. The pilgrims were seized after visiting a popular Shiite shrine on Saturday.

Rebels and regime forces continue their fight to control Syria's largest city. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari counterpart Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr Al-Thani agreed to help seek the pilgrims' release during separate phone conversations with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, IRNA reported.

Syrian family prays soldier son will defect

Meanwhile, President Bashar Assad's forces used artillery, planes and a helicopter gunship to pound rebel positions in Syria's biggest city, witnesses said, in a battle that could determine the outcome of the 17-month uprising.

After U.N. Security Council paralysis on Syria forced peace envoy Kofi Annan to resign last week, and with his ceasefire plan a distant memory, rebels were battered on Saturday by the onslaught they had expected in Aleppo and the capital Damascus.

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People resisting the army of President Bashar al-Assad in northern Syria cope with loss and prepare for fighting.

"There is one helicopter and we're hearing two explosions every minute," said a Reuters witness in Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub. 

Syrian forces struck at Aleppo's Salaheddine district, a gateway into the city of 2.5 million people that has become the frontline of an increasingly sectarian conflict that has killed some 18,000 people and could spill into neighboring countries. 

A local rebel commander said his fighters were preparing for a "strong offensive" by government forces on the city. 

Explosions shake Syria capital as rebels renew attack

In Damascus, jets bombarded the capital as troops kept up an offensive they began on Friday to storm the last rebel bastion there, a resident said. 

Opposition offer
Also on Sunday, the leader of Syria's main political opposition group said he was ready to negotiate with government officials whose hands are not "stained with blood", once Assad and his associates leave power, according to an interview published on Sunday. 

Abdelbasset Seida, head of the Syrian National Council (SNC), also told the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that  Annan's resignation may open the door for a new initiative to resolve the crisis.

In villages across Syria there is great concern for the city of Aleppo, where the violence seen in the last few days could be nothing compared to what's coming. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

"As far as we are concerned, the authorities have lost their credibility and legitimacy, and we have said this in Moscow bluntly: that dialogue with this regime is no longer possible," Seida said.

"Bashar and his gang must leave and after that we will move to negotiate with other officials whose hands were not stained with Syrian blood and who were not involved in big corruption cases," he added.

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On Friday, U.N. member states voted overwhelmingly to condemn the Syrian government for the violence at a special session of the General Assembly. Syria allies Russia and China opposed the non-binding resolution but were not able to use the veto they have used in the Security Council.

Seida welcomed Friday's vote: "We believe that the vote at the United Nations General Assembly represents the start of a new initiative that may be coming in the near future."

He did not elaborate.

Also on Sunday, a State Department spokeswoman said that Secretary State of State Hillary Clinton would travel to Istanbul next week to hold talks with the Turkish government on the crisis in Syria. 

A large military convoy was passing by the town and as the troops moved past, the rebels opened fire. Now the city is paying for it, bodies lining the streets. On Wednesday, President Obama signed an order that allows mostly clandestine forces to support the rebels in Syria. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

"Secretary Clinton goes to Istanbul for bilateral consultations with the Turkish government on Syria as well as to cover other timely issues," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement sent to reporters during a visit by Clinton to the southern African nation of Malawi. 

Clinton's planned talks in Istanbul on August 11 will form part of renewed international efforts to tackle the escalating crisis in Syria.

Nuland also announced that Clinton, whose current Africa tour will take her to South Africa later on Sunday, would also be visiting Nigeria, Ghana and Benin next week on her way to the Istanbul talks. 

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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