A military parade that Iran had touted to show its strength turned tragic Saturday after four militants shot dead at least 24 people including women and children. Fifty three other people were wounded.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the shooting rampage at the parade in southwestern Iran on Saturday. All the four attackers were killed.
Iranian authorities tagged the attack “terrorist” and blamed an unidentified US ally in the region. Saudi Arabia was the prime suspect.
“Terrorists recruited, trained, armed & paid by a foreign regime have attacked Ahvaz,” Foreign minister Javad Zarif said in a tweet, adding: “Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their US masters accountable for such attacks”.
The deadly shooting targeted the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan, a province bordering Iraq that has a large ethnic Arab community and has seen separatist violence in the past which Iran has blamed on its regional rivals.
“The number of martyrs of the terrorist incident reached 24, some of whom were women and children among the spectators,” IRNA said, adding the death toll could rise further as many of the wounded were in critical condition.
Armed forces spokesman Brigadier General Abolfazl Shekarchi said that the dead included a young girl and a former serviceman in a wheelchair.
“Of the four terrorists, three were sent to hell at the scene, while the fourth who had been wounded and arrested went to hell moments ago due to his severe wounds,” Shekarchi told state television.
Khuzestan deputy governor Ali-Hossein Hosseinzadeh told the semi-official ISNA news agency that a journalist was also among the dead. He also said earlier that “eight to nine” troops had been killed.
Zarif did not specify which regional government he held responsible for the shooting, but Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards said the attackers were funded by Sunni arch rival Saudi Arabia.
“Those who opened fire on civilians and the armed forces have links to the Ahvazi movement,” Guards spokesman Ramezan Sharif told ISNA.
“They are funded by Saudi Arabia and attempted to cast a shadow over the Iranian armed forces.”
Zarif vowed Iran would “respond swiftly and decisively in defence of Iranian lives”.
In a message of condolence to Russia’s close regional ally, President Vladimir Putin said he was “appalled by this bloody crime.”
“This event once again reminds us about the necessity of an uncompromising battle against terrorism in all of its manifestations.”
Khuzestan was a major battleground of the 1980s war with Saddam’s Iraq and the attack on the anniversary parade in Ahvaz had significant symbolic value.
The province saw unrest in 2005 and 2011 but has since seen been largely quiet.
Attacks by Kurdish rebels on military patrols along the border further north are relatively common.
But attacks on regime targets inside major cities are far rarer.
On June 7, 2017, 17 people were killed and dozens wounded in simultaneous attacks in Tehran on the parliament building and on the tomb of revolutionary leader Ruhollah Khomeini — the first inside Iran claimed by the Sunni Muslim extremists of the Islamic State group.
In April, 26 alleged IS jihadists went on trial on charges connected with that twin attack.
Police said that five people were arrested at the scene of the attacks and dozens more arrests were reported in the following months — many along the borders with Iraq and Turkey.
The attack in Ahvaz came as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was among the dignitaries at the main anniversary parade in Tehran.
In a keynote speech, Rouhani vowed to boost Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities despite Western concerns that were cited by his US counterpart Donald Trump in May when he abandoned a landmark nuclear deal with Tehran.