World News

Iran frees Iraqi soldier in border incident

ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iran released an Iraqi border patrol officer Friday after he was detained briefly when Iraqi border guards were mistaken for Kurdish rebels on a northern stretch of the two countries’ border, an official said.

An Iraqi soldier keeps guard near the Iraq-Iran border in a file photo. REUTERS/Faleh Kheiber

The guard was released unharmed Friday evening, said Brigadier General Ahmed Gharib, head of Iraq’s border guards in Iraq’s northern Kurdish province of Sulaimaniya.

“It was a misunderstanding. It’s not the first time it has happened,” Gharib said.

Officials said Iranian troops fired into the air after mistaking the Iraqis for rebels Thursday.

There was no exchange of fire between the two sides in the incident, contrary to some reports, said Major General Jabbar Yawar, spokesman for Iraq’s Kurdish peshmerga security forces.

“The Iranians thought the Iraqi forces belonged to the Kurdish opposition PJAK (the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan),” Yawar said.

“After no more than five minutes of shooting, which was from the Iranian side only, the incident ended when the Iraqi soldiers explained ... that they are Iraqi border guards.”

The Iraqi officer was detained when he went over to the Iranian forces to identify himself, Gharib said.

“The Iraqi forces did not open fire, so there was no reason to detain the officer,” he said.

The Iranian authorities were not immediately available for comment.

Iranian security forces often clash with rebels from the PJAK, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which took up arms in 1984 for an ethnic homeland in southeast Turkey.

Thursday’s incident took place in a border area near the town of Darbandikhan in Sulaimaniya, 260 km (160 miles) northeast of Baghdad.

Iran and Iraq fought a ferocious eight-year war in the 1980s in which a million people died.

But relations have improved enormously since Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and Iraq’s Shi’ite majority rose to political prominence. Iran is also a predominantly Shi’ite Muslim state.

Still, long-running border disputes have not been fully settled.

In December, a small group of Iranian troops took over an oil well for a few days in a remote region along a disputed part of the border. The well is considered by Iraq as part of its Fakka oilfield and the incident caused oil prices to rise.

Like Iraq, Turkey and Syria, Iran has a large Kurdish minority, mainly living in the Islamic Republic’s northwest and west.

Iran designates PJAK, which seeks autonomy for Kurdish areas in Iran and finds shelter in Iraq’s northeastern border provinces, as a terrorist group. The United States, Iran’s arch foe, in February last year also branded PJAK as a terrorist organization.

Reporting by Shamal Aqrawi; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Matthew Jones