Sunni Jihadists are withholding the bodies of 12 Iranian Revolutionary Guards killed last week in Syria, an Iranian military official said Tuesday, quoted by ISNA news agency.
According to Iranian media, 13 Revolutionary Guards "military advisers" died last week in fighting in Khan Tuman, southwest of the battleground city of Aleppo, and 21 others were wounded. Iran refers to all its forces fighting in Syria's civil war as "advisers," even those fighting alongside and commanding forces on the front lines.
It was Iran's biggest loss of forces within a very short period, based on official figures. All were from Iran's northern province of Mazandaran.
"The Takfiris (extremists) are holding 12 bodies of the Mazandaran martyrs," said Hossein Ali Rezayi, a Guards spokesman in the region.
"As fighting is still ongoing in this region, the repatriation will be possible only after the liberation of those areas."
Rezayi said that all other members of the forces from Mazandaran, as well as nine of the injured, had now returned to Iran.
Pro-regime troops had driven jihadists out of Khan Tuman in December, but on Friday Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadists of the Al-Nusra Front and their allies retook the area, with dozens killed from both sides.
Five or six members of the Iranian forces were captured in the battle, Iranian conservative lawmaker Esmail Kossari told the judiciary's official news service Mizan Online on Tuesday.
No senior military official or politician has confirmed the capture.
Fars news agency on Tuesday reported the deaths of four other Iranians, including a general, Shafi Shafiei. Shafiei joins cores of senior Revolutionary Guards commanders previously killed by Syrian rebel and jihadist forces.
He was killed on Friday in Khan Tuman, Mizan said.
Three Afghan volunteers killed in Syria were buried Monday in the northeast Iranian city of Mashhad, papers reported.
Iran, Syria's main ally in the region, is involved militarily and financially in Syria's war, trying to prop President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
President Hassan Rouhani heaped praise on the Revolutionary Guards in a speech Tuesday in southeast Iran.
"Today the Revolutionary Guards not only have a responsibility to ensure the safety of the country alongside the army, police and basijis (militias linked to the Guards), but also bear the burden of safety in other countries that ask our help," Rouhani said.
They are present there "to defend our sacred mausoleums in Iraq, Syria, the oppressed (people) in Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan and elsewhere where they have requested help," he added.
Rouhani also paid tribute to General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the Guards' foreign operations arm.
"Today, when we look at Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Palestine, we see the traces of the bravery and courage of General Suleimani everywhere," he said.
AFP contributed to this report.