US has hand in blast: Iran

TEHRAN: Iranian officials Friday accused the US of hiring those behind a suicide bombing of a Shiite mosque in southeastern Iran that killed 23 people and linked the attack to next month's presidential vote.

"Three people involved with the terrorist incident were arrested," Jalal Sayah, deputy provincial governor of the Sistan-Baluchistan province that borders Pakistan and Afghanistan, told Fars news agency.

"According to the information obtained they were hired by America and the agents of the arrogance," Sayah said. Iranian officials usually use the term "global arrogance" in reference to Iran's arch-foe the United States.

The suicide attack during Thursday evening prayers at the Shiite Amir al-Momenin mosque in Zahedan, the restive capital of Sistan-Baluchistan, killed 23 people and wounded 125 others.

"This catastrophe was a suicide terrorist attack," Zahedan MP Payman Foroozesh told ILNA news agency.

Provincial justice chief Ebrahim Hamidi said the attacker "had stood in the last line of male worshippers during the evening prayer, carried out the bombing and died."

Hamidi told ISNA news agency that one person had been arrested for the bombing and "charged with armed opposition and acting against national security. But his motive cannot be presented for the moment."

He said most attacks in the restive province were carried out by a Sunni rebel group headed by ring leader Abdolmalek Rigi, but he could not confirm whether the group could be blamed for Thursday's bombing.

Iran's former premier and presidential hopeful Mir Hossein Mousavi too blamed "foreign forces" for Thursday's attack.

Mousavi at a media conference with journalists from international news networks said incidents such as the mosque bombing "have either been influenced or supported by foreign forces."

"The fewer foreign forces in the region, the more security there is. They provoke extremism in the region such as the incident in Zahedan," said Mousavi, one of four candidates standing in the June 12 presidential election.

Iran has in the past blamed US and British agents based in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan for launching attacks on border provinces with significant ethnic minority populations.

Sistan-Baluchistan province has a large ethnic Baluch minority.

Ali Mohammad Azad, the governor general of the province, said the attack was part of a plan by "bandits and terrorists" to disturb the "order in the province before the election considering the insecurity in the eastern neighbouring countries."

He was quoted by the official IRNA news agency late Thursday as blaming "terrorists" for the explosion.

"The members of the terrorist group intended to explode bombs in some other areas of Zahedan, but they have been arrested due to the efforts of the provincial intelligence office."

According to IRNA, Zahedan's Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Abbas Ali Soleymani told reporters that "one of the main persons involved (in the attack) had been arrested" and "he will soon be punished in front of the mosque."

Fars said the mosque is the second biggest Shiite mosque in Zahedan and also a "gathering place for revolutionary Shiites."

On February 18, Al-Gadhir mosque in Zahedan was attacked. A bomb apparently carried by a motorcyclist exploded but caused no casualties.

The last major attack in Zahedan was a February 2007 strike by suspected Sunni rebels that killed 13 elite Revolutionary Guards.

Thursday was a public holiday in Iran to mourn the death of Fatima Zahra, the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed.

In recent years, Sistan-Baluchistan has been the scene of a deadly insurgency by Sunni rebels of the Jundullah (Soldiers of God) group, headed by Rigi, which is strongly opposed to the government of predominantly Shiite Iran.

The province also lies on a major narcotics-smuggling route from Afghanistan and Pakistan.