DUBAI (Reuters) - The status of five kidnapped Iranian border guards remains unclear, Iran said on Sunday, retracting earlier reports by Iranian military officials that they had been freed in Pakistan.
“Until now, reports about the fate of the five border guards are not reliable,” an Iranian Interior Ministry official said, according to the state news agency IRNA.
An Iranian Sunni Muslim rebel group called Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice) claimed responsibility for the February 6 kidnapping of the five men in Sistan-Baluchistan province, according to a Twitter account purporting to belong to the group. Its authenticity could not be immediately verified.
The group also denied the border guards had been released.
“There is no truth to the rumor in Pakistani media and some Iranian news websites about the freeing of Iranian soldiers held prisoner,” Jaish al-Adl tweeted on Saturday.
On Saturday, IRNA had said the Iranians were among 11 foreign hostages freed in an operation by Pakistani forces.
Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps said it had released three Africans abducted by drug traffickers in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan on Saturday, but had not rescued the Iranians.
Iran’s impoverished and relatively lawless Sistan-Baluchistan province has been a hotbed of rebellion by minority Sunnis against the Shi‘ite government in Tehran.
Angered by cross-border attacks by Jaish al-Adl, Iran said two weeks ago that it might pursue the rebels into Pakistani territory. Islamabad warned it against any such incursion.
Iran accuses Pakistan and Saudi Arabia of supporting Sunni rebels. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif enjoys warm ties with Saudi Arabia, where he lived in exile after an earlier military coup. His government also hopes for Saudi funding.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the champion of Sunni Islam, are rivals for influence in the Muslim world.
A Pakistani delegation was in Tehran on Sunday to discuss the fate of the missing border guards.
Additional reporting by Gul Yousafzai in Quetta and Katharine Houreld in Islamabad; Reporting by Michelle Moghtader; Editing by Alistair Lyon