KABUL/HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Iranian border guards killed 45 Afghan migrant workers trying to cross into Iran this month by forcing them into a raging mountain torrent at gunpoint, according to two Afghan lawmakers investigating the deaths.
The incident has triggered a diplomatic crisis between the neighbours, who share trade, economic and cultural ties. Iran has denied that such an event took place on its soil.
Afghan authorities said on Thursday they had recovered 12 bodies in the past two days from the Harirud River, which forms much of the northern, mountainous section of Afghanistan’s border with Iran, taking the confirmed death toll to 17.
Afghan officials and survivors say the incident took place on May 1.
Habiburrahman Pidram, a lawmaker from the westerly Herat province who spoke with survivors, said a group of 57 men trying to enter Iran from Herat had been detained by Iranian border guards.
“These workers were kept in custody by Iranian forces and, after 24 hours, the Afghan workers were brought to the bank of the river, beaten and ordered to jump in the river to go back to Afghanistan,” he said.
Those who could swim then jumped into the deep, fast-flowing mountain torrent, while the others were beaten up and threatened with being shot before jumping or being pushed in, said Pidram, part of a 16-strong team appointed to investigate by President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
“Of 57 workers who were forced into the river by Iranian security forces, only 12 managed to survive,” Pidram said, meaning 45 must have died. Five bodies were pulled out by a shepherd, downriver in Turkmenistan, to the north, he added.
Lawmaker Abdul Satar Hussaini, who is also investigating the incident, said some of the dead workers had come from his province, Farah, which adjoins Herat.
Abdul Ghani Noori, the governor of Herat’s Gulran district, opposite the Iranian bank where the incident is alleged to have taken place, said 17 bodies had been found so far.
He said preliminary investigations had shown that the migrants had been forced into the river at gunpoint in an area called Zulfiqar on the Iranian side.
On May 2, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi issued a statement saying only that the incident in question had taken place on Afghan soil.
“Border guards of the Islamic Republic of Iran denied the occurrence of any events related to this on the soil of our country,” he said.
The Iranian embassy and consular office in Afghanistan said on Thursday that they could not add to the ministry’s statement, and the ministry could not be reached for further comment.
Iran says about 2.5 million Afghan migrants, both legal and undocumented, mostly from Herat, are in Iran after failing to find work in war-ravaged Afghanistan.
U.N. officials say Iran’s coronavirus epidemic has caused more than 150,000 Afghans to return home, some of them deported.
Dozens of Herat residents have staged protests against Iran in defiance of a pandemic lockdown, some smashing the windows of Iranian trucks.
The United States has condemned the river incident and encouraged the Afghan authorities to undertake a full investigation.
Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday said that Iran had agreed to a joint investigation to determine the facts and the identity of the perpetrators.
Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi; Writing by Rupam Jain; Editing by Kevin Liffey