Iran Urges Pakistan To 'Hand Over' Militant Leader
October 23, 2009
(RFE/RL) -- Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar has urged Pakistan to hand over the leader of the Baluch rebel group Jundallah (Soldiers of God).
Speaking on a visit to Islamabad, Najjar said Tehran has proof Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi "travels readily to Pakistan."
Sheltering Rigi "is not in the interest of the two countries' good-neighborly relations," Najjar said.
The Pakistani interior minister, who met with Najjar, did not make a direct reply to the Iranian demand.
But the Interior Ministry quoted Rehman Malik as telling Najjar that "Pakistan would never allow its territory for any terrorist activity against Iran or any other country."
Malik also said it was "imperative that Pakistan and Iran work in harmony for peace in the region."
Islamabad has previously said that its intelligence agencies have evidence Rigi is in Afghanistan, suggesting there might be little Islamabad can do to help Tehran target Jundallah's leadership.
Najjar is in Islamabad for talks with Malik over how to crack down on Jundallah.
The meeting comes five days after a suicide bomber killed at least 42 people, including top members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province.
Jundallah took responsibility for the attack -- one of the deadliest ever in the group's six-year insurgency against Tehran.
Tehran wants Islamabad to join a coordinated sweep against Jundallah, which operates across the two countries' porous border. But reaching agreement may prove difficult.
Pakistan, like Iran, faces periodic insurgencies in its Baluch-populated southwest. That might suggest both governments could benefit from joint operations to weaken militant Baluch groups.
The 1,000-kilometer border between Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan is in rough, desolate terrain that's hard to patrol and is freely crossed by drugs and arms smugglers. Baluch militants from each side cross the border freely, relying on a network of tribal and family links for protection.
But the timing couldn't be worse for Islamabad. Pakistan is already fighting a hot war against the Taliban in the country's northwest and may hesitate to risk escalating tensions in its southwest.
Contradictory statements about Jundallah in recent public statements by Iranian and Pakistani officials have also highlighted potential difficulties for an agreement.
After the attack on October 18, Iran said the group has links to intelligence agencies in the United States, Britain, and Pakistan.
Tehran also said Jundallah has bases in Pakistan, a charge Islamabad denies.
Islamabad joined Washington and London in rejecting the charge they backed the attack, which they condemned as terrorism.
But Pakistan also said it has evidence Rigi is in Afghanistan, suggesting there might be little Islamabad can do to help Tehran target Jundallah's leadership.
Restive Baluch Minority
The attack stung Tehran not only because of its size, but also because it killed several top commanders of Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) charged with isolating and suppressing Jundallah.
Among the victims were Brigadier General Nurali Shushtari, deputy commander of the IRGC's ground forces, and General Rajabali Mohammadzadeh, the IRGC's commander in Sistan-Baluchistan.
The attack came just as Tehran handed responsibility to the IRGC for maintaining security in Sistan-Baluchistan, a sign Jundallah is a growing worry for the government.
The suicide attack targeted a meeting between provincial commanders of the IRGC and tribal leaders that was part of Tehran's new drive to isolate the rebels.
Jundallah says it's fighting on behalf of the largely Sunni Baluch population against discrimination and neglect by officially Shi'ite Iran.
A Jundallah statement on the Internet said the aim of the October 18 operation was to avenge "the wounds of the Baluch people that have been bleeding for years without end."
The feelings mirror those of militant Baluch groups on the Pakistani side of the border. They periodically launch attacks on government installations to protest what they call economic exploitation of their region by Islamabad.
Hundreds have died in Pakistan's southwest since Baluch rebels rose up against Islamabad in 2004, demanding political autonomy and a greater share of profits from the region's natural resources.
On both sides of the border, Baluch-populated areas are among the poorest in the region.
Both Iran and Pakistan fear local resentments among the Baluch could fuel a coordinated separatist movement.
As militancy spreads across the entire region, analysts say growing ties between Baluch militant groups in Pakistan -- and possibly Jundallah in Iran -- and Taliban insurgencies in Pakistan's tribal areas and Afghanistan could serve as a catalyst and provide resources for a wider Baluch insurgency.
But so far there have been no signs that Baluch militant groups are ready for concerted action on both sides of the border.
Copyright (c) 2009. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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