The Guardian: Iran accused Britain of trying to stir religious and ethnic unrest in its eastern border region yesterday after armed rebels ambushed a party of government officials and killed 21.. The Guardian
Robert Tait in Tehran
Iran accused Britain of trying to stir religious and ethnic unrest in its eastern border region yesterday after armed rebels ambushed a party of government officials and killed 21.
Police said the victims, who included security officials, were ordered out of their vehicles and shot in cold blood. The fleet of cars was then set ablaze. Seven others, including the governor of the provincial capital, Zahidan, were wounded in Thursday night’s incident, which happened after gunmen, disguised in military uniforms, set up a roadblock to intercept the convoy as it travelled along a remote spot in the south-eastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan.
The convoy had been returning from a function honouring religious martyrs and war dead. Reports suggested that as many as 12 others had been kidnapped by the gunmen, who were said to have fled across the border into Afghanistan or Pakistan after a brief armed exchange with Iranian security forces.
Sistan-Baluchestan, one of Iran’s poorest provinces, has a large ethnic Baluchi Sunni population, which has long complained of religious discrimination at the hands of the Shia majority.
All the victims of Thursday’s incident, the most serious in a spate of recent violent clashes in the province, were Sistani and Shia, official Iranian media reported. There was no claim of responsibility but government officials wasted little time in linking the incident with British and US forces stationed in neighbouring Afghanistan.
“We have information that the bandits had meetings with British intelligence services,” Iran’s national police chief, Esmaeel Ahmadi Moqaddam, a relative of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told state television. “It appears that a plan to create instability and religious hatred similar to the bombing of the Shia shrine in Samarra [in Iraq”> is being pursued here.”
Iranian officials have publicly blamed America for last month’s attack on Samarra’s golden mosque, accusing it of trying to foment chaos in Iraq.
The foreign ministry in Tehran has summoned the Afghan and Pakistani ambassadors to complain that rebels are using their countries, both US allies, as sanctuaries from which to strike Iran.
“We do not consider this to be a limited regional incident. It is related to the plans that the enemy [code for America and Britain”> is launching in the bandits’ area,” an unnamed interior ministry source told the semi-official ILNA news agency.
The accusation echoed similar claims over a spate of bombings in another Iranian province, Khuzestan, bordering Iraq, which has killed more than 20 people in the last year. Iran has accused British forces in Iraq of training ethnic Arab militants to carry out the attacks in the heavily Arab-speaking province. Britain has vigorously denied the allegations.
The latest violence and resulting war of words come amid a backdrop of impending talks between Iran and the US aimed at bringing stability to Iraq.
Addressing Friday prayer worshippers at Tehran University Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said the talks – breaking what is a taboo for many Iranian hardliners opposed to ties with the US -would be limited to Iraq and would not include Iran’s nuclear programme or other issues.
Sistan-Baluchestan, a barren, mountainous region, is one of Iran’s most violent and lawless provinces. It is the scene of frequent clashes between security forces and armed traffickers of opium and heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan. More than 3,000 Iranian military personnel are believed to have been killed in such confrontations since the Islamic revolution in 1979. In November a clash between police and gunmen left five officers and two gunmen dead. In December armed men killed a member of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s security team.