ABU DHABI Bahrain has accused Iran's Revolutionary Guard of setting up a militant cell to assassinate public figures in the Gulf Arab kingdom and attack its airport and government buildings.
Bahraini authorities said on Sunday they had arrested eight Bahrainis in the group, with links to Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.
The kingdom, base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, has been in political turmoil since protests erupted there in 2011, led by majority Shi'ite Muslims demanding an end to the Sunni monarchy's political domination and full powers for parliament.
Bahrain has accused Shi'ite Iran of fuelling the unrest, an accusation Tehran has consistently denied.
In a statement published by the official Bahrain News Agency late on Tuesday, Bahrain's head of public security said the cell was part of a group called the "Imam Army" which included Bahrainis at home and abroad and members of other nationalities.
"Investigation has also revealed that a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard codenamed 'Abu Naser' masterminded the whole terror operation," the agency quoted public security chief Major-General Tariq Hassan al-Hassan as saying.
Abu Nasser supplied the group with $80,000, Hassan said, and instructed it to gather information, recruit and obtain weapons storage in Bahrain.
The cell's planned targets included the Ministry of Interior and Bahrain International Airport, he said. The group attended training camps run by the Revolutionary Guard inside Iran, as well as some operated by Iraq's Hezbollah in Baghdad and the Iraqi city of Kerbala, Hassan added.
Five of the detainees were arrested in Bahrain and three in Oman, General Hassan said, adding another four Bahrainis were being sought by the authorities.
He said authorities had collected evidence in the form of papers and electronic documents, flashcards, phones, computers, cash and images of bank transactions.
On Monday Ramin Mehmanparast, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, dismissed Sunday's news of the arrests.
"Unfortunately Bahraini officials are following a mistaken path," Iran's ISNA news agency quoted him as saying.
He said Bahraini officials were "making accusations against various countries including Iran, and they imagine that in this way they can solve the problem they are encountering".
News of the arrests emerged after an upsurge in unrest on the island last week. A protester and a policeman were killed in clashes on February 14 as anti-government protesters marked the second anniversary of the uprising.
The violence has clouded the atmosphere around talks that began on February 10 between the mostly Shi'ite opposition and the Sunni-dominated government to find a way out of the impasse over Shi'ite demands for more democracy.
Another round of talks was due to be held on Wednesday afternoon.
(Reporting by Raissa Kasolowsky; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Roche)