Iran on Sunday backtracked on reports that five Iranian "engineers" abducted in Syria had been freed -- the second time in months it retracted news of their liberation.
Kazem Sajjadi, a foreign ministry official in charge of Iranians abroad, told state television that five Iranian pilgrims who had been kidnapped separately had been released, but that the five engineers remained captives.
"We hope that negotiations (through Iranian embassies in Turkey, Qatar and Syria) can pave the way for the release of engineers," Sajjadi said after he welcomed the five pilgrims upon their arrival in Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport.
He corrected reports last Thursday by state media that 12 Iranian nationals -- the five engineers and seven pilgrims -- had been freed in Syria after a months-long ordeal.
The five nationals described by Iranian officials as engineers were said to have been working on an electricity plant near the city of Homs for Iran's Power Plant Projects Management Company when they were taken in late December.
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Early reports said a total of seven Iranian engineers had been abducted near Homs -- five initially, then two others who had gone to search for them.
Iran previously said in February the seven had been freed before correcting the information and reporting that they remained captives.
An unknown group calling itself the "Movement Against the Expansion of Shiism in Syria" claimed responsibility for the Iranians' abduction in a statement received by AFP in Nicosia at the beginning of January.
The rebel Free Syrian Army later said it was holding five Iranian Revolutionary Guards abducted in Homs, but it was not clear if it was referring to the "engineers" or to a different group of Iranians.
In addition, 22 Iranian pilgrims travelling to holy Shiite sites in Syria were reported to have been kidnapped since late December. More than half of them have been released since early February.
Syria, Iran's principal ally in the Middle East, is roiled by a year-long uprising that has seen more than 9,000 people killed, according to UN estimates.
Rebels accuse Iran of helping Syrian authorities in their deadly crackdown.