TEHRAN — A fire allegedly set by militants during sectarian clashes in a restive Iranian city left at least five dead Monday, according to Iranian state media. Dozens were reported injured in the day's fighting.
The website of Iran's English-language Press TV said five employees of a branch of Mehr Financial & Credit Institute, a small bank, in the southeastern city of Zahedan died in the alleged arson attack.
According to a local journalist, the incident took place at noon as dozens of men rampaged through a poor section of the city, trashing a water treatment plant and a clinic as well as the bank. Security forces quelled the unrest within hours, said Adel Mazari, the journalist.
"We have identified and arrested a number of rogue elements who sought to fuel insecurity in the city," an Iranian news agency quoted police official Ahmad Reza Radan as saying. "Security has been restored to the city and we have everything under control."
Pakistani media said Iran had shut down the border crossing between the countries in response to the violence, cutting off trade between Iran and the Pakistani city of Quetta.
The Press TV report said clashes erupted as a "group of Sunni hard-liners took to the streets" to protest a decision by a local Sunni cleric to participate in a memorial service for Shiite Muslim victims of a Thursday evening mosque explosion that killed 25 people.
The ethnic Baluch militant group Jundallah claimed responsibility for that attack, and local government responded by executing several alleged members of the group Saturday, accusing them of aiding the militants.
Tensions have risen in ethnically and religiously mixed southern Iran ahead of June 12 elections. Iran's majority Persians and its Azeris are mostly Shiite Muslim, while the ethnic Baluchis in southeastern Iran are mostly Sunni.
Over the weekend, Iranian authorities discovered a bomb aboard a plane leaving Iran's southwestern city of Ahvaz, which is home to many ethnic Arabs.
Iran has blamed the United States for some of the violence, alleging that Jundallah, led by Abdulmalak Rigi, has ties with American forces in neighboring Afghanistan. "The terrorist network of Rigi is connected to some of the troops in Afghanistan," Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, told reporters Monday.
U.S. officials have strongly denied any connection to last week's bombing and deny supporting any kind of terrorism against Iran.
"We condemn this terrorist attack in the strongest possible terms and extend our sympathy to the families of those injured and killed," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters Friday after the mosque attack. "We do not sponsor any form of terrorism in Iran."