DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An armed separatist group in Iran’s restive southeast assaulted a vehicle carrying members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard paramilitary force Tuesday, state TV reported, as unrest continues to roil the impoverished region.
Iranian state TV blamed an al-Qaida-linked Sunni militant group called Jaish al-Adl for the attack in Sistan and Baluchestan, which wounded one officer and left another missing.
The report did not describe what weapons the group used in the ambush or elaborate on the officer's disappearance. The force’s engineering unit had been building roads outside the city of Saravan, the report said.
In the past, militants and small separatist groups in the predominantly Sunni region have abducted and killed members of the powerful Revolutionary Guard as part of a violent low-level insurgency against the Shiite government. In 2019, Jaish al-Adl claimed a suicide bombing on a bus that killed 27 members of the Revolutionary Guard force.
Over the last week, protests and violent clashes have rocked Sistan and Baluchestan following the fatal shootings of fuel smugglers at Iran’s border with Pakistan. Outraged demonstrators have stormed government buildings and blocked roads in Saravan. For days, the area saw widespread internet service disruption, which activists described as a government attempt to prevent witness documentation of authorities' crackdown.
The Iranian government reported that border guards killed at least two people and wounded several more in the mayhem last week. Human rights groups, however, have given higher death tolls. The Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group, reported that Iranian security forces have killed at least 23 protesters. In a statement this week, the group accused Revolutionary Guard forces of shooting demonstrators "to silence dissent.”
Amnesty International also released a report based on witness testimony and footage Tuesday describing how the demonstrations first erupted. Iranian border guards opened fire on fuel smugglers who were trying to come back into the country after selling the subsidized petrol in Pakistan, the group said. Rage boiled over when security forces blocked the smugglers' road into Saravan, stranding them in their pick-up trucks at the desert crossing without water or food. When some threw stones and tried to force their way past the checkpoint, officers killed at least 10 fuel traders, Amnesty said.
Sistan and Baluchestan is one of the least developed and most volatile parts of Iran. The relationship between the province’s predominantly Sunni residents and Iran’s Shiite theocracy has long been fraught.
In a speech last week, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights accused Iran of carrying out “an apparently coordinated campaign” targeting minority groups since December, including in Sistan and Baluchestan.
“Across the country, the exercise of civic freedoms and political or critical expression continue to be targeted,” she said, expressing concern for “persistent impunity for human rights violations.”