ISTANBUL, Turkey — Iran has arrested its most wanted fugitive, a Sunni Muslim rebel leader linked to a number of high-profile attacks and alleged to have Western backing in what Tehran on Tuesday called "a great defeat for the U.S. and U.K."
Iranian state TV showed masked police leading Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of the militant Jundallah (Soldiers of God), off a small plane.
Jundallah has claimed responsibility for a series of attacks against civilians and soldiers in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province from bases in Pakistan, including a suicide bombing in October 2009 that killed 42 people, among them seven senior officers of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and top tribal leaders gathering for a meeting.
An attack on a mosque in the town of Zahedan on the border with Afghanistan in May 2009, a month before presidential elections in Iran, killed more than 20. A February 2007 attack killed 11 Revolutionary Guard soldiers riding a bus near Zahedan. In March 2006, militants posing as police killed 22, many of them government employees.
Iranian Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi claimed that Rigi had been on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan less than 24 hours before the plane he was traveling on was forced to land in Iran during a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan.
"Our anonymous soldiers were able to manage his whereabouts, and they followed him everywhere he went, and through this he was arrested," Moslehi said in Tehran. He showed a photograph of Rigi — with his beard shaved off — that he claimed was taken at a U.S. base.
Moslehi also alleged that Americans had provided Rigi with an Afghan passport, that the Sunni militant had visited Europe and that he'd met with a senior NATO military official in Afghanistan in April 2008.
"We have clear documents proving that Rigi was in cooperation with American, Israeli, and British intelligence services," Moslehi said, according to Iran's state-run English-language PressTV.
A U.S. official dismissed the claim that Rigi had been on a U.S. base in Afghanistan as a "totally bogus accusation," Agence France-Presse reported, and the U.S. government has denied charges of CIA or any other support for Jundallah. The group, however, isn't one of the 45 that the State Department has designated as foreign terrorist organizations.
In the past, Iran also has claimed that Jundallah was linked with al Qaida. Iranian officials Tuesday said that his "right-hand man" also was arrested.
Rigi's capture is a public relations coup for authorities in Tehran, who've accused the U.S. and the West of backing rebellious minority factions such as Rigi's Jundallah — which has called for greater rights for Sunni ethnic Baluchis in majority Shiite Iran — the Kurdish PJAK operating from Iraq in northwest Iran and Arabs in the south.
Such groups and alleged U.S., British, and other intelligence and military support for them have been the subject of speculation for years, as U.S. officials spoke openly about promoting "regime change" in Iran during President George W. Bush's administration.
Several news reports have described CIA and other support for Jundallah, which often operated from Pakistan. ABC News reported in April 2007 that Jundallah "has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005", an assertion the network attributed to unnamed U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources.
Al Jazeera-English interviewed Rigi's brother, Abdolhamid Rigi, already in Iranian custody and facing execution, late last year. "In 2004, an American general came to meet Malek in Islamabad," he said. "The American general told him to expand the operations beyond the Sistan-Baluchistan border, even to Tehran. Then Malek told the general, 'If you give me enough money and equipment, then we can do these operations.' "
Iranian officials have routinely blamed foreign hands but produced little evidence; Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari demanded after the October attack that Pakistan hand over Rigi, saying that Iran had "proof" that Jundallah had support from Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday that Iran would "cut off the hands" of any nation that attacked it. "No power can harm Iran," he said in a speech in the eastern town of Birjand. "The Iranian nation will chop off the hands from the arm of any attacker from any part of the world."
(Peterson is a Christian Science Monitor staff writer.)
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