TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – Iran said Tuesday that its security forces have captured the top leader of an armed Sunni group whose insurgency in the southeast has destabilized the border region with Pakistan.
A state TV report quoted Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar as saying that insurgency leader Abdulmalik Rigi was arrested abroad, then taken to Iran. Najjar did not say where Rigi was apprehended, but said, “the intention was to arrest him alive,” the report added.
But lawmaker Mohammad Dehghan told the official IRNA news agency that Rigi was flying over the Persian Gulf en route from Pakistan to an unidentified Arab country when his plane was ordered to land inside Iran. Dehghan gave no details.
But state-run English-language Press TV said, without elaborating, that Rigi was captured on a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan.
Rigi’s Jundallah group has claimed responsibility for bombing attacks that have killed dozens in recent years, including five senior commanders of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard in October. There was no immediate reaction from Jundallah to the state report on Rigi’s capture.
Mohammad Azad, governor of Sistan-Baluchestan province in southeastern Iran, told state TV that other militants who were with Rigi were also taken into custody and transferred to Iran. Azad did not elaborate.
Jundallah, which Iran suspects of having links with the al-Qaeda terror group, gained notice six years ago with sporadic attacks and kidnappings. It claims minority Sunni tribes in southeastern Iran suffer discrimination at the hands of Iran’s Shiite leadership.
Rigi has said in the past that the group did not seek to break away from Iran but that violence was necessary to draw attention to alleged discrimination.
Iran has accused the U.S. and Britain of aiding the Sunni militant group, with the aim of weakening the Iranian government. Both Washington and London have denied the charges.
Press TV quoted Iranian Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi as saying Tuesday that Rigi was spotted at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan 24 hours before his arrest.
Pakistani authorities repeatedly had claimed Rigi was hiding in Afghanistan. At the same time, they say they have been cooperating with Iran and have handed over a dozen suspected militants in recent months, including Rigi’s brother Abdulhamid Rigi.
Abdulhamid Rigi had been scheduled to be hanged in July but his execution was postponed without explanation.