Contradictory accounts clouded Iran’s announcement Tuesday that it had captured the leader of a Sunni Muslim militant group it has been fighting for years.
Iran declared that it had caught Abdulmalak Rigi, leader of the outlawed Jundallah, after a months-long operation, saying it had evidence that he and his group were backed by the United States. There were conflicting statements by Iranian officials about where he was detained.
“We had spread a dragnet and we managed to capture him,” said Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar, state radio reported. “He is now in the claws of justice. We were watching him and his agents, but we wanted to capture him alive.”
But the rebel group, which claims to fight for the rights of the nation’s ethnic Baluch minority, quickly countered Tehran’s narrative, insisting that its leader had been captured by U.S., Pakistani and Afghan intelligence and handed over to the Islamic Republic as part of a backroom deal. The rebels did not say where he was taken.
“Very soon, we will produce documents proving American, British and regional intelligence services’ cooperation with the [Iranian] regime,” said a statement posted to the movement’s website. The pan- Arab Al Jazeera news channel said Pakistan handed Rigi over to Iranian authorities a week ago.
Jundallah, which draws inspiration from the same puritanical Salafi version of Islam as Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, for several years has battled the mainly Persian and Shiite Muslim government in Iran.
Baluchis, who straddle a region that includes parts of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens by Tehran. They say this is especially true under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during which relations between the ethnic group and the central government have deteriorated.
Iranian officials said Rigi and his second-in-command are now in their custody after what authorities describe as a five-month operation. He faces a possible death sentence, accused of staging attacks in eastern Iran, mostly targeting the Revolutionary Guard.
Iran has long claimed that Jundallah was backed by the United States as part of a proxy war meant to put pressure on the Islamic Republic.
Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi showed a photo of Rigi on state television and said it had been taken at the “headquarters of Americans in Afghanistan” 24 hours before he was taken into Iranian custody. Moslehi also showed an identity card and passport purported to belong to Rigi that he said were issued by the U.S.
He said Rigi was arrested without help from other countries.
“We warn the U.S. and British intelligence services that they should stop underwriting terrorists,” he said during a televised news conference. “We have strong evidence proving Abdulmalak Rigi was enjoying support from U.S., England and some other European countries.”
A British Foreign Office spokesman hailed Rigi’s reported capture, telling the official Islamic Republic News Agency that he was “a terrorist responsible for despicable attacks which have killed many innocent Iranians.”
Numerous disparities also emerged in accounts provided by Iranian officials.
The IRNA said he was captured in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province. But Najjar said he was seized in Pakistan, while Iran’s state-owned Press TV reported that he was on a flight from Central Asia to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, when his plane was “grounded” by Iranians in the Persian Gulf city of Bandar Abbas.
Television video showed Rigi disembarking from a plane, accompanied by figures in black masks.
Washington has long rejected claims that it supports Jundallah. Some analysts speculate that Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the protector of Sunnis, was providing support to the group.
Rigi’s capture did not spell an end for the organization. His disciples, the statement posted to the website said, would continue the struggle against Tehran “in ways the Iranian government will not be able to imagine.”
Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.