TEHRAN (Reuters) - Gunmen took as many as 30 people hostage in southeast Iran on Sunday after burning vehicles and shooting at passengers, news agencies said, an incident blamed on Sunni Muslim rebels Tehran has previously linked to al Qaeda.
The attackers then took the hostages across the border into Pakistan, state television said.
Some media sources gave lower figures for the number of people seized in the early morning on a road in Sistan-Baluchestan, a volatile eastern border province notorious for frequent clashes between security forces and drug smugglers.
The ISNA and Fars news agencies said 30 people were taken hostage, while the state broadcaster said 12 people were seized.
Colonel Mohammad Javad Asna-Ashari said the perpetrators belonged to a group led by Abdolmalek Rigi, who Iran has blamed for several other attacks in the southeast of the Islamic Republic, Fars said.
Jundollah (God’s Soldiers), a shadowy Sunni Muslim group led by Rigi, in February claimed responsibility for an attack on a bus owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards that killed 11 people and it has also been blamed for other violence in the region.
Officials have said Rigi was a cell leader of Osama bin Laden’s Sunni Muslim al Qaeda network in Iran, an overwhelmingly Shi’ite Muslim country. In June, state television said security forces had wounded Rigi and killed his brother.
Some in Sunni regions in Iran say they suffer discrimination, but Iranian officials deny this.
Giving details about Sunday’s hostage-taking, Asna-Ashari said several armed men closed a road between the Iranshahr and the port city of Chabahar and set fire to several cars and two trucks carrying oil.
The gunmen blocked the way of a passenger bus, ISNA said, but it was not clear whether all the hostages were from the bus.
They also shot at other vehicles and wounded some passengers. A local education official was among those taken, Iranian media said.
Last week in southeast Iran, officials said bandits took two Belgian tourists hostage. One has since been freed. Tourists visiting the region have been advised not to travel at night.
The Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs says it is working with the Iranian authorities to secure the release of Stefaan Boeve, who it said was still being held.
Alongside the February attack, Iran has said Jundollah killed 12 people in a roadside attack in May last year. In March 2006, the group said it was behind an attack that killed 22 people.
Iran’s border regions with Afghanistan and Pakistan are a major smuggling route for drugs and other contraband. More than 3,300 Iranian security personnel have died in the region fighting drug traffickers since Iran’s 1979 revolution.
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