A suicide attack on a mosque in one of Iran's most unstable regions has left at least 39 people dead and dozens more injured as the country prepared to mark one of its holiest annual religious festivals.
The blast, in the town of Chabahar in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, devastated the Imam Hossein Mosque and killed worshippers taking part in a procession marking the run-up to the Shi'ite Ashura ceremony, which commemorates the death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein.
Jundallah (Soldiers of God), a Sunni militant group which has carried out many similar attacks in Sistan-Baluchistan, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on its website.
The statement said, "This operation is a warning to the Iranian regime that it must end its interference in the religious affairs of the Sunnis, stop executions, and release the prisoners."
The statement also said the attack was an act of revenge for the execution of the group’s leader, Abdulmalik Rigi, in June, and vowed other attacks.
Local reports said the dead included women and children. At least 90 were reported injured. Press TV, Iran's state-owned English language news channel, said there had been bomb threats leading up to the attack.
In a statement, U.S. President Barack Obama called the attack a “despicable offense” and said, “The United States stands with the families and loved ones of those killed and injured and with the Iranian people in the face of this injustice.”
U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon was “shocked and dismayed” by the “abhorrent terrorist act” according to a statement released by his office.
A man wounded in the bombing is treated in a local hospital.
Some accounts said there had been twin explosions caused by two suicide bombers. But this was contradicted by the Chabahar official, Ali Bateni, who said there had been only a single blast.
Another official, Mahmud Mozafar, was quoted by the semi-official news agency ILNA as saying the bomber had blown himself up next to a group of Red Crescent ambulances.
The attack was the latest in a spate claimed by Jundallah in recent years in a campaign waged against what it sees as oppression of Sistan-Baluchistan's Sunni Baluch-speaking population by Iran's Shi'ite, Persian-speaking establishment.
Last month, the U.S. State Department named Jundallah as a foreign terrorist organization, drawing a cautious welcome from Tehran, which has previously accused the United States and Britain of supporting the group.View Chahbahar in a larger map
In July 2010, the organization took responsibility for an attack on the grand mosque of Zahedan, Sistan-Baluchistan's provincial capital, which killed 28 people. The attack was also carried out in retaliation for the execution of Jundallah's leader, Rigi, the previous month.
In October 2009, a suicide bomber dispatched by the group killed more than 40 people -- including at least six senior commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) -- in Sistan-Baluchistan's Pishin area.
Sistan-Baluchistan, one of Iran's poorest provinces, has long been a transit route for drugs traffickers from neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan. More than 4,000 Iranian security force personnel are believed to have been killed in armed clashes with traffickers since 1979.
Today's attack is the second year running that Iran's Ashura commemorations have been marred by violence. At least nine people were killed last year in Tehran and other cities in bloody clashes between security forces and demonstrators protesting against the crackdown imposed after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
On November 29, one of Iran's leading nuclear scientists was killed in an apparent targeted assassination on the streets of Tehran. Another atomic scientist was wounded on the same day in a separate incident. Iran has blamed those attacks on Israel and the West, which suspect Tehran's nuclear program to be aimed at producing an atomic bomb.written by Robert Tait with agency reports