(Corrects spelling of Herat throughout)
By Storay Karimi
HERAT, Afghanistan May 3 (Reuters) - Afghan officials on Sunday launched a hunt to retrieve bodies of Afghan migrants from a river in a western province after reports that Iranian border guards tortured and threw Afghans into the river to prevent their entry into Iran.
Afghanistan’s foreign ministry in a statement on Saturday said an inquiry had been launched and a senior official in the presidential palace in Kabul said initial assessments suggested at least 70 Afghans who were trying to enter Iran from bordering Herat province were beaten and pushed into the Harirud river.
The Harirud river basin is shared by Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan.
Doctors at Herat District Hospital said they had received the bodies of Afghan migrants, some of whom had drowned.
“So far, 5 bodies have been transferred to the hospital, of these bodies, its clear that 4 died due to drowning,” said Aref Jalali, head of Herat District Hospital.
The Iranian consulate in Herat denied the allegations of torture and subsequent drowning of dozens of Afghan migrant workers by border police.
“Iranian border guards have not arrested any Afghan citizens,” the consulate said in a statement on Saturday. Iranian embassy officials in the Afghan capital Kabul were not immediately available for a comment.
Noor Mohammad said he was one of 57 Afghan citizens who were caught by Iranian border guards on Saturday when they were trying to cross into Iran in search of work from Gulran District of Herat.
“After being tortured, the Iranian soldiers threw all of us in the Harirud river,” Mohammad told Reuters.
Shir Agha, who said he also survived the violence, said at least 23 of the 57 people thrown by Iranian soldiers into the river were dead.
“Iranian soldiers warned us that if we do not throw ourselves into the water, we will be shot,” said Agha.
Local Afghan officials that it was not the first time that Afghans had been tortured and killed by Iranian police guarding the 920 kms (520 miles) long border.
Herat’s governor Sayed Wahid Qatali in a tweet to Iranian officials said, “Our people are not just some names you threw into the river. One day we will settle accounts.”
The incident could trigger a diplomatic crisis between Iran and Afghanistan at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has seen a mass exodus of Afghan migrants from Iran with many testing positive for COVID-19.
Up to 2,000 Afghans daily cross the border from Iran, a global coronavirus hotspot, into Herat.
As of Sunday, at least 541 infected people are from Herat province, which recorded 13 deaths, with the majority of positive cases found among Afghan returnees from Iran, said Rafiq Shirzad, a health ministry spokesman in Herat. (Additional reporting by Orooj Hakimi, Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Michael Perry)