DAMASCUS: More than 1,000 combatants sent from Iran to fight in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria have been killed in the conflict, the head of Iran’s veterans’ affairs office said Tuesday.
“The number of martyrs from our country defending the shrines has now passed 1,000,” Tasnim news agency quoted Mohammad Ali Shahidi Mahalati, the head of Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs’ and Veterans’ Affairs, as saying.
Iran has sent military advisers, as well as volunteer fighters recruited from Afghanistan and Pakistan, to work with Assad’s forces. They are known in Iran as “defenders of the shrines” in reference to Shiite holy sites in Syria.
Shahidi did not specify the nationalities of those killed.
Shiite Iran is a staunch supporter of Assad and provides both financial and military support to militants in Syria.
The Fatemiyoun Division of Afghan recruits organised by Iran comprises the majority of volunteers sent from Iran to fight in Syria and Iraq.
Iran says they are sent to fight against Sunni extremists such as the Islamic State group (IS).
The Islamic republic denies having any boots on the ground in Syria, and insists its commanders and generals of the elite Revolutionary Guards’ foreign operations wing act as “military advisers” both there and in Iraq.
Iranian media regularly report on the death in Syria of Iranian, Afghan and Pakistani “martyrs” whose bodies are buried in Iran.
The latest death toll is significantly higher than previous tallies, although no overall figures have been officially announced so far.
In August, Shahidi said Iran’s Foundation of Martyrs’ and Veterans’ Affairs was caring for 400 people related to fighters killed in action in Syria and Iraq, half of them Afghans.
“We immediately cover (the families) that the Quds Force announces to us,” he said, according to ILNA news agency, referring to the Guards’ foreign operations wing headed by Major General Qassem Suleimani.
“We are waiting for the Quds Force to confirm the martyrdom” of more fighters, “so we can cover their families too,” he said at the time.
Iran in May passed a law allowing the government to grant citizenship to the families of foreigners killed while fighting for the Islamic republic.
The law could apply to volunteers from Afghanistan and Pakistan who are fighting in Syria and Iraq against jihadists including those from IS.