x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Iran captures leader of Jundallah rebel group

Iran says it has captured its most wanted fugitive and claims he has been at a US military base in Afghanistan.

Iran said yesterday it had captured its most wanted fugitive and claimed he had been at a US military base in Afghanistan. Iranian state television broadcast footage of a handcuffed Abdulmalik Rigi, dressed in a white shirt and khaki trousers, being led from an aircraft by four masked agents. Rigi heads Jundallah, the Sunni Muslim rebel group that has claimed responsibility for the worst terrorist attacks in the Islamic republic since the 1980s.

Tehran portrayed Mr Rigi's arrest as a brilliant operation by its intelligence agencies after five months of planning, but officials gave contradictory accounts of the capture. Iran's intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, said Rigi was arrested on a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan. A parliamentarian, Mohammad Dehghan, said Rigi was flying from Pakistan to an unidentified Arab country when his plane was ordered to land inside Iran. And Iran's interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar, said Rigi had been captured in Pakistan and brought back to Iran.

Iran has long maintained that Jundallah is supported by the US and Britain, accusing them of using the group to foment sectarian strife in the hope of destabilising the regime. Both countries have vehemently denied the allegations. Washington described as a "totally bogus accusation" the claims that Rigi had been at an American base. Tehran also blames its post-election unrest on Washington and London, claiming they are supporting the opposition to unseat the regime in a "velvet revolution".

Jundallah (Soldiers of God) claimed responsibility for a bloody suicide bombing in the south-eastern town of Pisheen last October. It killed more than 40 Iranians, including 15 from the Revolutionary Guards, several of whom were senior commanders said to be on their way to meet local tribal leaders to promote unity between local Shiite and Sunni communities. The Revolutionary Guards leader, Mohammad Ali Jafari, promptly blamed the US and Britain for involvement in the attack and had vowed revenge.

Another force commander said the "terrorists and rebels" were trained by "America and Britain in some of the neighbouring countries". Washington condemned the October attack as an "act of terrorism", and said it mourned the "loss of innocent lives" and, along with Britain, once again denied having anything to do with Jundallah. Iranian officials also have long claimed that Mr Rigi - whose group they have linked to al Qa'eda - was hiding across the border in Pakistan and had links to that country's intelligence services. Many analysts, however, see Jundallah as a nationalist group with local grievances which does not share Osama bin Laden's goal of global jihad.

Pakistan, meanwhile, has said Mr Rigi was based in Afghanistan and insists it never helped Jundallah, pointing out that it had handed over several senior members of the group to Iran in recent years, including Mr Rigi's brother, Abdolhamid, who is on death row. Jundallah also claimed responsibility last May for a suicide bomb attack at a Shiite mosque in Zahedan, the provincial capital of Iran's lawless and turbulent Sistan-Baluchistan province that borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. At least 20 people were killed and 50 wounded.

Jundallah, which was founded in 2002, maintained that its intention was to undermine stability before Iran's presidential elections a month later. Weeks after the disputed vote, the authorities hanged 13 alleged Jundallah members. They were branded "enemies of God" and convicted of a string of offences, including kidnapping foreigners. Jundallah's campaign is one of several small-scale ethnic and religious insurgencies in Iran that have fuelled sporadic and sometimes deadly attacks in recent years, although none has amounted to a serious threat to the government.

The rebel group, which is thought to have between 100 and 1,000 armed fighters, maintains it is waging a struggle against official discrimination of Sunnis in impoverished Sistan-Baluchistan province by Iran's Shiite rulers. Iran's ethnic Baluchis are estimated to number between 1.5 million and two million. Most of them are Sunnis and are a majority in the province. Iran rejects allegations by western human rights groups that it discriminates against its ethnic and religious minorities.

Mr Rigi has said that his group does not seek to break away from Iran but that violence is necessary to draw attention to alleged discrimination. In an interview with Al Arabiya television in December 2008, he threatened attacks in the Iranian capital if the government did not grant Iran's Sunnis their "full rights". If Tehran complied, Jundallah would lay down its arms and "engage in political life". Mr Rigi also took the opportunity to deny that his group was connected in any way to the US.

Iranian suspicions of American perfidy were fuelled by reports in some respected mainstream US media outlets in 2008 that Jundallah was being secretly encouraged and advised by US officials. Tehran used purported confessions from Mr Rigi's condemned brother last August to bolster its claims of western involvement. Paraded before reporters, Abdolhamid Rigi said his sibling had links with al Qa'eda and the US.

"The United States created and supported Jundallah and we received orders from them," he said, clearly under duress. "They told us that they would provide us with everything we need, like money and equipment." mtheodoulou@thenational.ae