BEIRUT, Lebanon — Iranian officials on Tuesday hailed the capture of a Sunni rebel leader as a major antiterrorist coup, and sought to portray his arrest as a victory over Britain, the United States and Israel, saying those countries had supported the insurgent group.
The rebel, Abdolmalek Rigi, is the leader of Jundallah, a militant group that claims to be defending Sunni Muslims in Iran’s southeast and has killed hundreds of soldiers and civilians there since 2003.
Iran’s intelligence minister, Heidar Moslehi, said in a news conference on state-run Press TV on Tuesday that Mr. Rigi was at an American base 24 hours before his capture, and that the United States had arranged a forged Afghan passport for him. Mr. Moslehi said that Mr. Rigi had connections to the Central Intelligence Agency and Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, and that he had met with the NATO military chief in Afghanistan in April 2008.
Mr. Moslehi added that the arrest “proves the power of the Islamic republic.” The United States, like Britain and Israel, denies providing any support to Jundallah.
The interior minister, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, said Mr. Rigi was arrested Tuesday on a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan, Press TV reported. But Al Jazeera, the satellite TV channel based in Qatar, reported from Pakistan that Mr. Rigi was arrested in Pakistan last week and handed over to Iran.
Iran has been facing rising international pressure over its nuclear program, and its security services have been keen to project an image of strength since last June’s disputed presidential election, which set off the worst domestic unrest since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The country has responded firmly to opposition protests and to ethnic rebel groups; two Kurdish activists were hanged in recent months and 11 other Kurds are on death row. At least 14 people accused of being Jundallah members were executed last year.
Jundallah, which means “soldiers of God” in Arabic, claims to be fighting on behalf of Sunni Muslims from the Baluchi ethnic group in Iran and Pakistan. It is active in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, where the population is heavily Sunni; Iran is predominantly Shiite. Mr. Rigi’s family is said to be heavily involved in smuggling drugs across the Afghan border, and armed clashes between security forces and smugglers are common in the border region.
Jundallah claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, including a bombing in October that left 15 members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps dead, along with 25 civilians. Another bombing, at a mosque in the city of Zahedan in May, killed at least 20 people. In December 2008, the group claimed credit for a suicide bombing that killed four people, a tactic rarely seen in Iran.
Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency broadcast a videotape showing Mr. Rigi being led out of a small airplane by black-clad masked security men.
The British government issued a statement on Tuesday saying: “Abdolmalek Rigi is a terrorist responsible for despicable attacks which have killed many innocent Iranians. The United Kingdom has always condemned such actions.”
Iran’s deputy Parliament speaker, Mohammad-Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard, said the arrest showed that “Iran has great power to cut off the hands of criminals and defuse plots of the arrogant powers as well as those made by the U.S. and its mercenaries.”