RIBAT, Iran — Deep in the lawless triangle connecting Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, eight Iranian soldiers are being held hostage by a Sunni group that is vowing to kill them if Tehran does not meet its demands.
“We will chop their heads off once our deadline is over,” said Abdul Hameed Reeki, chief spokesman of the Jundallah, or Brigade of God group, slowly drawing an index finger across his neck.
The deadline for the men is today.
The emergence of a fanatical Sunni group operating inside Iran’s southeastern border poses a startling new threat to the country’s Shi’ite clerical regime, which already faces a crisis with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
The eight members of the Iranian border security police were kidnapped last month and are being offered in exchange for the release of 16 of their captors’ colleagues, who are jailed by the Iranian government.
“If they release our men, we will release the soldiers,” said Hameed, 27, in his first interview. “But if they don’t, we will chop their heads off and will send them as a gift to [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.”
The desolate plains of Ribat — infested with bandits, drug traffickers and rebel tribesmen — is the perfect place for an insurrection. Armed with assorted rifles, hand grenades and a few anti-aircraft guns, the group has been operating from Iran’s lawless borderlands for four years.
They say they have killed 400 Iranian soldiers in a series of hit-and-run operations. The Iranian government has accused the United States of supporting the Sunni group and is trying to persuade Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to intercede on behalf of the eight hostages.
But the Jundallah deny any link with either the United States or the Pakistani government. Although they hold out little hope of their 16 members being freed, they hardly appear to care.
“If they hang all the 16 of our colleagues, we do not mind because we know they would be martyrs and will go straight to heaven,” Hameed said.
Killing the hostages might be necessary, he suggested, to deter Iranian soldiers from killing innocent Sunnis, who are a majority in some southeastern provinces and, he says, are being persecuted by Mr. Ahmedinejad’s hard-line administration.
“We will cut them, cut them and cut them until they ask for the mercy and Tehran is compelled to give us our political rights,” he said.
He also said Iran, which announced last week that it was breaking seals on three nuclear plants in order to resume sensitive nuclear fuel cycle work, was just a “screwdriver turn away from manufacturing a bomb.”
He added, “Once they do it, they will become a mad elephant and will be a real threat to the world peace.”
Although Jundallah has just 1,000 trained fighters, he said, it has the dedication needed to defeat the Iranian army — particularly if it received some help from the West.
“Our determination is mightier than the mountains, and if we are provided with a little backup from outside, we have the guts to take over, if not Tehran, at least the Sunni majority province of Iranian Baluchistan within a week’s time,” he said.
The group complains that Iran’s 90 percent Shi’ite majority and its government, dominated by Shi’ite clerics, persecutes its Sunni population and denies them their rights.
“No Sunni has a right to become a president, prime minister or even a minister in the Iranian government,” said Hameed.
“Between 12,000 and 15,000 Sunnis in the Iranian Baluchistan province have been jailed since the Shi’ite revolution of 1979,” he claimed, adding that human rights organizations were prevented from reaching areas to verify the figures.
All the senior figures of Jundallah had been motivated to found and join the group by injustices they had experienced personally, Hameed said.
Its leader, Abdul Malik Baluchi, 25, began the group after his brother and uncle were killed in separate encounters with the Iranian police.