An image taken from Iranian TV station IRIB shows Sunni militant Abdulmalak… (AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Beirut and Tehran — Iran's security forces said they captured the head of an ethnic militant group they have fought for years Tuesday morning and claimed he was at an American base in Afghanistan a day before he was caught.
Abdulmalak Rigi, the infamous leader of the ethnic Baluch militant group Jundallah, and his second-in-command are in Iranian custody after what the Ministry of Intelligence and Security is touting as a five-month operation.
"We had spread a dragnet and we managed to capture him," said Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, according to state radio. "He is now in the claws of justice. We were watching him and his agents, but we wanted to capture him alive."
Iran has long claimed that Jundallah was backed by the United States as part of an ongoing proxy war meant to pressure the Islamic Republic. Iran's Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi showed a photo of Abdulmalak Rigi on state television and said it was taken at the "headquarters of Americans in Afghanistan" 24 hours before his capture. Moslehi also showed an identity card and passport purporting to belong to Rigi that he said were issued by the U.S.
"We warn the U.S and British intelligence services that they should stop underwriting terrorists," he said at a televised press conference. "We have strong evidence proving Abdulmalak Rigi was enjoying support from U.S., England and some other European countries."
There were conflicting reports of where Rigi was arrested. The Islamic Republic News Agency said he was captured in Iran's eastern Sistan-Baluchistan province. Najjar said he was captured in Pakistan and brought back to Iran.
The arrest "was the result of months of round-the-clock efforts by intelligence and security organs," Mohammad Azad, provincial governor of Sistan-Baluchistan, told IRNA.
Rigi's group has allegedly been behind the killings of dozens of Revolutionary Guard members. Iran alleges it has also attacked civilians and kidnapped a Japanese tourist. It was accused of a suicide bombing of a meeting between Revolutionary Guard commanders and local tribal leaders in the eastern city of Sarbaz. That attack killed nearly two dozen people.
Iran's ethnic Baluchis, on whose behalf Jundallah claims to fight, are a Sunni Muslim minority straddling a region that includes parts of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have long complained of being treated as second-class citizens by Tehran, especially under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during which tensions between the ethnic group and the central government have worsened.
Washington has long rejected claims that it supports Jundallah. There was no immediate reaction to Tuesday's reports.
Some analysts speculate that Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the protector of Sunnis, was providing support to the group. Najjar called Rigi "a bandit who served as an agent for foreigners."
email@example.com Mostaghim is a special correspondent.