TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran seized a Sunni Muslim rebel leader on Tuesday behind a bombing which killed dozens of people last year, and who Tehran says has links to al Qaeda and support from Pakistan, Britain and the United States.
There were contradictory reports about how Iranian security forces detained Jundollah leader Abdolmalek Rigi, whose group had claimed the October 18 bombing that killed more than 40 Iranians, including 15 from the elite Revolutionary Guards.
Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi said Rigi had been in a U.S. military base 24 hours before his arrest, was carrying an Afghan passport supplied by the United States and had earlier visited European countries, state-run Press TV reported.
Rigi’s capture comes as major powers push for further United Nations sanctions against Iran over its refusal to halt uranium enrichment, which the West suspects could be aimed at making nuclear bombs. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
The United States, Britain and Pakistan all deny backing Jundollah, which operates in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Moslehi said Rigi had been arrested on board a plane flying between Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia and the Gulf Arab emirate of Dubai. Television pictures showed him being taken off a plane in handcuffs, accompanied by four masked men.
“We have clear documents proving that Rigi was in cooperation with American, Israeli and British intelligence services,” Press TV quoted the intelligence minister as saying.
“Dubai has a smeared hand in this scandal that shows the Zionist regime wants to turn the region into a safe haven for terrorists with the help of America and Europe,” Moslehi declared, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Earlier the semi-official Fars news agency quoted Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar as saying Rigi had been arrested abroad with three other rebels and transferred to Iran.
“The arrest of Rigi by our security and intelligence forces indicates Iran’s intelligence predominance over the region,” he said, without saying where the rebel leader had been snatched.
Some lawmakers said Iranian warplanes might have intercepted Rigi’s aircraft and forced it to land in Iran.
Rigi’s arrest may heighten tension in the southeast, where ethnic Baluch insurgents have waged a violent campaign for several years against the Shi’ite-dominated Tehran government.
The October 18 bombing that targeted the Revolutionary Guards was the deadliest in the Islamic Republic since the 1980s.
Iranian officials say Rigi was briefly detained on September 26 in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. They say Iran asked Pakistan to hand him over, but he was freed before the October attack.
The Revolutionary Guards, seen as fiercely loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, handle security in border areas. Their power and resources have increased since the election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.
A local judiciary official said Rigi and his brother Abdolhamid, who was arrested last year, face execution.
“The Iranian nation is counting the moments for the punishment of these terrorists. The verdict on this outlaw is clear in our religion,” said the official, Mohammad Marzieh.
“But first Rigi should be interrogated.”
Iran hanged 13 members of the group in July and one on November 3 in connection with various killings and attacks in Baluchistan. The execution of Rigi’s brother was postponed.
Jundollah accuses the government of discrimination against Sunnis. Tehran rejects allegations by Western rights groups that it discriminates against ethnic and religious minorities.
Sectarian violence is relatively rare in Iran, but attacks and clashes have increased between security forces, Sunni insurgents and drug traffickers in the impoverished southeast.
Additional reporting by Hahsem Kalantari, Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Alistair Lyon