Pakistan has rescued and repatriated 169 of its citizens who were stranded in Syria, after they travelled to the country as Shia pilgrims.
According to a statement by Pakistan International Airlines' (PIA) spokesperson, Abdullah Hafeez Khan yesterday, one of its aircraft was sent to the northern Syrian city of Aleppo to pick up the 169 Pakistani citizens.
The Pakistanis were reportedly initially in the capital, Damascus, and were meant to fly back commercially from there. After the serious damage to the Damascus International Airport and its runways inflicted by Israeli airstrikes over the weekend, however, their plans were obstructed.
The Pakistani government then coordinated with the Syrian regime authorities to arrange transport by bus for the stranded citizens to Aleppo, where the airport there – still operating on a limited number of commercial flights – was able to facilitate Islamabad's repatriation operation. The passengers landed in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi yesterday.
Despite the ongoing conflict in Syria and the phenomenon of some Pakistani Shias joining Iranian-backed groups to fight alongside the regime of Bashar Al-Assad before they return home, Pakistan's Shia citizens have continually travelled to Syria to visit the shrine of Zainab, the grand-daughter of Islamic Prophet Muhammad, as well as other relatives and figures.
Over the past year, PIA has decided to increase religious tourism and pilgrimage by operating direct flights to Syria and Iraq twice a week.