TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran’s military accused the United States and Israel of terrorism as it held a funeral on Tuesday for high-ranking commanders killed in the deadliest attack in the Islamic Republic since the 1980s.
Throngs of uniformed mourners carried the flag-draped coffins of the deputy head of the Revolutionary Guards’ ground forces, General Nourali Shoushtari, and other officers blown up by a suicide bomber in volatile southeastern Iran on Sunday.
In another sign of growing instability in the region near Pakistan, Iran’s Mehr News Agency said gunmen shot dead two policemen late on Monday in a city in the same province, Sistan-Baluchestan, where the previous day’s attack took place.
It was not immediately clear whether the attacks were linked.
Fifteen Guards members were among the 42 people killed in Sunday’s bombing, including six senior commanders, Iranian media said. Tribal chiefs and other civilians also died.
“The martyrdom of commander Shoushtari added a black page to the U.S. and Israeli terrorist file,” said armed forces head Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, quoted by IRNA news agency.
A Sunni rebel group, Jundollah (God’s soldiers), has claimed responsibility for the attack in the poverty-stricken province of Sistan-Baluchestan bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Iran, mainly Shi’ite Muslim, says Jundollah is backed by the United States and Britain and has suggested it also has ties with majority Sunni Pakistan.
London, Washington and Islamabad have denied involvement. Tehran has often accused its Western foes of seeking to destabilize sensitive border areas.
Many minority Sunnis live in the remote desert area, where there has been an increase in bombings and clashes between security forces, ethnic Baluch Sunni insurgents and drug traffickers.
The head of the Sistan-Baluchestan judiciary, Ebrahim Hamidi, said the suicide bomber had been identified and he was from the province. “The elements behind the terrorist attack will be arrested soon,” Fars News Agency quoted him as saying.
Iran’s state Press TV said three people had been detained over the bombing but gave no details.
Sunday’s attack, the deadliest such incident in Iran since its 1980-88 war with Iraq, took place a day before talks started between Iranian and Western officials in Vienna aimed at allaying concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Thousands of people, many of them military men, attended the funeral ceremony at a Guards base in Tehran, holding pictures of the victims and of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Khamenei, we are ready for martyrdom,” one banner read.
Qasem Soleimani, who heads the Guards’ elite Qods force, said the attack had made it more determined to defend the values of the 1979 Islamic revolution which ousted the U.S.-backed shah.
“We are an organization which is awaiting to become martyrs,” Soleimani said, repeating allegations that the aim of the suicide bombing was to provoke sectarian strife.
The Revolutionary Guards, seen as fiercely loyal to Khamenei, handle security in border areas. Their power and resources have increased in recent years.
Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the perpetrators were based in Pakistan and carried out cross-border raids.
“Members of this terrorist group regularly violate the border and launch attacks inside Iran,” he told a news conference, referring to Jundollah. “The hands of those behind the crimes in southeastern Iran must be cut.”
He said Iran and Pakistan would hold talks on how to resolve the issue, saying they shared a “border of friendship.”
Jundollah, which accuses the government of discrimination against Sunnis, has been blamed for many deadly incidents in the past few years. According to Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television, the group claimed responsibility for the bombing of a mosque in Sistan-Baluchestan in May in which 25 people were killed.
On one of its websites, Jundollah said Sunday’s attack was “a response to the continuous crimes of the Iranian regime against the defenseless and oppressed people of Baluchestan.”
Iran rejects allegations by Western rights groups that it discriminates against ethnic and religious minorities.
In a separate development on Tuesday, more than 100 Iranian lawmakers filed a complaint to the general prosecutor against opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi for “harming the image of the system” through his activities.
Mousavi was defeated in the June presidential election by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but says the vote was rigged. The opposition says more than 70 people were killed as Revolutionary Guards and Islamic militia quelled protests that erupted after the poll.
Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi, Reza Derakhshi and Hossein Jaseb in Tehran and Firouz Sedarat in Dubai; Editing by Andrew Dobbie