Iranian agents 'free hostage'

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Iranian secret agents successfully mounted a “complex intelligence operation”, crossing the border into Pakistan and recovering an Iranian diplomat snatched by gunmen 16 months ago, Iranian state media reported yesterday.

The diplomat had returned safely to Iran yesterday. Described as a commercial attaché based at Iran’s consulate in the northwest town of Peshawar, Heshmatollah Attarzadeh-Nyaki was seized there in November 2008, after the still unknown kidnappers killed his bodyguard.

Hailing the highly unusual move, Iran’s intelligence minister Heidar Moslehi said that Tehran had taken “the initiative” after refusing to bow to the kidnappers’ demands and Pakistan’s failure to secure the diplomat’s release.

But Pakistani security officials privately contradicted the claims, insisting that they had quietly worked together with the Iranian agents in the rescue operation. Pakistan’s powerful security forces jealously guard their borders and brook little interference.

In October 2008, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani led angry protests after US Special Operations forces mounted their first publicly known “boots on the ground” operation, pursuing terrorist suspects in a remote part of South Waziristan along the Afghan border.

Mr Moslehi, the Iranian intelligence minister, seized the occasion to sound a triumphalist note and lash out against Israel and America. “We have a high intelligence capability in the region,” he said. “We have a good intelligence dominance over all other secret agencies active in the region.”

While vaunting the performance of his agents, Mr Moslehi accused Mossad and the CIA of having captured Mr Attarzadeh-Nyaki in the first place. It is still not known who the captors were, but suspicions have chiefly been cast on hardline groups close to al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, notorious for their anti-Shia opposition to Iran.

The rescue of the diplomat marks the second successful clandestine operation linked to Pakistan, an uneasy ally, in recent weeks. Last month, Iranian state media cheered the arrest of Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of the shadowy Sunni rebel group Jundullah, based in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province.

Iranian state media reported that Mr Rigi had been intercepted on flight from Dubai to Kyrgyztan. But competing reports said that he was arrested in Pakistan and discreetly handed over to Iranian authorities.

As neighbouring Muslim countries, Pakistan and Iran often describe their relationship in effusive terms. In private, the relationship is murkier. Islamabad is suspicious of Tehran’s proximity to Delhi, while the Iranians are discomfited by Saudi Arabia’s clout in Pakistan.