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Iran Rebel, On Death Row, Says U.S. Supported Group

Abdolhamid Rigi arrives at a press conference in the city of Zahedan.
ZAHEDAN, Iran (Reuters) -- Iranian authorities have presented a condemned Sunni rebel to reporters who said his group had received support from both the United States and al Qaeda to attack targets inside Iran.

The statement by Abdolhamid Rigi echoed Iran's allegations about Jundallah (Soldiers of God), which claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on a Shi'ite mosque in May that killed 25 people in the Islamic republic's volatile southeast.

He is a brother of Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi and his execution was postponed last month when 13 other members of the ethnic-Baluch Sunni group were hanged for attacks. Iran, an officially Shi'ite Muslim country, has small Sunni minorities.

Iranian authorities had invited foreign journalists to Zahedan, capital of Sistan-Baluchistan Province bordering Pakistan, to what appeared a carefully planned event.

Before the news conference in a government office, a video was shown in which Abdolhamid Rigi said Jundallah was engaged in kidnappings, robberies, and drug smuggling to make money and also received backing from the United States, Iran's arch-foe.

"We were told that it is religiously allowed to get America's help," he said on the film.

The video also showed the beheading by Jundallah of a man identified as Abdolhamid Rigi's brother-in-law who was accused of being a government informer.

Wearing civilian clothes, Rigi later told the news conference he had been deceived by Jundallah and that he was ready to die for his crimes.

He entered the room without handcuffs and with no sign of police escorting him. But he said he remained jailed and had made no deal with the authorities.

Iranian officials last month said his execution was delayed in order to get more information from him.

Al-Qaeda Links

"I was irreligious and uneducated. I'm a criminal," Rigi said, appearing remorseful but also calm. "The sooner I'm executed the better for me and society."

Iran accuses the United States of backing Jundallah in order to create instability in the country. Washington denies the charge. Jundallah itself says it is fighting for the rights of the Islamic republic's minority Sunnis.

Ethnic Baluch, many with tribal links to their restive kin in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan, make up an estimated 1-3 percent of Iran's 70 million people.

Rigi said the United States had provided $100,000 to Jundallah five years ago and had also pledged to provide everything it needed in terms of money and equipment.

"All the orders [to Jundallah] come from there," said Rigi, who is about 30 years old.

Iran has also linked Jundallah to the Sunni Islamist Al-Qaeda network. Rigi said Jundallah had contacts and cooperation with Al-Qaeda in Pakistan until 2003, when they parted ways because of differences over strategy in Iran.

Most people in Sistan-Baluchistan are Sunni Muslims and ethnic Baluchis. Close to Pakistan and Afghanistan, the region has been the scene of frequent clashes between security forces and heavily armed drug smugglers.

Iran rejects allegations by Western rights groups that it discriminates against ethnic and religious minorities.