Iranian ‘militants’ kidnap N-worker

TEHRAN, Oct 10, (Agencies): A Sunni militant group in Iran has claimed it kidnapped a man working at a nuclear facility and has threatened to spill his secrets if members of the group held by Tehran are not released. Jundallah (Soldiers of God) said on its website junbish.blogspot.com late on Saturday that it was holding hostage Amir Hossein Shirani, an “employee at a nuclear plant” in Iran’s central province of Isfahan. “Mr Shirani has important information, especially about senior Iranian nuclear experts... and release of his confessions will cost the Iranian regime dearly,” it said in a statement, without adding when Shirani was abducted. Jundallah has demanded that Tehran free what it said were more than 200 Sunni and Baluch political prisoners and members of the group held in Iranian jails, the statement added.
It warned that failure to do so “within a week” would lead to “releasing to the public the information gathered from Mr Amir Hossein Shirani, so the world finds out more about the Iranian regime’s secret nuclear activities.”

The website said Shirani was being held in the mountains of the southeastern Sistan-Baluchestan province bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, an area known for drug smuggling and tribal unrest. Iranian officials confirmed the kidnapping but downplayed it. “Amir Hossein Shirani worked as a welder for a short period and then as a driver for one of the companies contracted with” the Iran Atomic Energy Organisation, said Hamid Khadem Qaemi, a spokesman for the nuclear body. “He is not employed with Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation” any more, Qaemi was quoted as saying by Farhang-e Ashti newspaper on Sunday, adding that the abduction was a “personal matter and not linked to the nuclear issue.”
Gholam Reza Ansari, the judiciary chief in Isfahan, also confirmed that Shirani had been kidnapped, but said the “abduction was related to a financial dispute with a drug cartel in Sistan-Baluchestan.”

Jundallah’s claim comes after Iran admitted on Friday that Western nations have been spying on its controversial nuclear programme, but that Tehran had managed to halt it. The West led by Washington suspects that Iran is seeking to make atomic weapons under the guise of a civilian nuclear programme, a charge Tehran denies. Jundallah says it is fighting for the interests of Sistan-Baluchestan’s large ethnic Baluch community who, unlike most Iranians who are Shiite, mainly follow the Sunni branch of Islam.

In the past decade, Jundallah has admitted responsibility for many deadly attacks on Iranian security forces as well as assaults that have led to civilian deaths in Sistan-Baluchestan. In July, it launched twin suicide bombings at a mosque in the provincial capital Zahedan, reportedly targeting members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps, killing 28 people. The authorities have cracked down hard on the group, arresting many suspected members and executing its leader Abdolmalek Rigi in June. Rigi was captured in a dramatic operation in February while on a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan, when Iranian warplanes forced the aircraft he was on to land in Iran.
A month before his execution, his brother Abdolhamid was also executed on charges of “terrorism.”
Iran has long accused Jundallah of being trained and equipped by American, British and Pakistani intelligence services in a bid to destabilise the Shiite government in Tehran. Washington denies the charges.

Highway
Meanwhile, a company controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards has been given a contract to build a major highway, a newspaper reported on Sunday, the latest example of the elite military unit expanding its economic influence.
On Saturday, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marked the start of construction of the highway, which will connect two of Iran’s holy cities, calling it “the biggest project in the history of Iran and the region,” Arman daily reported.
The paper said Khatam al-Anbia, an engineering and construction arm of the Guards, would build the 1,100 kms (684 miles) road between Qom in central Iran and Mashhad in the northeast.
The Guards, a military force that has been directly targeted by international sanctions, have played a growing economic role in the Islamic Republic since hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first took office in 2005.
In 2006, Iran handed the development of several phases of the giant South Pars gas field to Khatam al-Anbia.
But on July 19 this year, after the UN Security Council passed a resolution blacklisting 15 firms belonging to the Guards including Khatam al-Anbia, Iran announced that the company had pulled out of developing all phases of South Pars.
No reason was given for the pull-out.
Ahmadinejad also has sent a letter to the pope thanking him for opposing a Florida pastor’s threat to burn the Quran and calling for cooperation against secularism, the Vatican and the Iranian presidency said Saturday.

The Vatican said Pope Benedict XVI had received the letter during a brief meeting with one of Iran’s vice presidents at the end of his weekly general audience Wednesday.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi did not release the contents of the message.
But the website of the Iranian presidency quoted Ahmadinejad as thanking the pope “for your condemnation of an unwise move by a Florida church.” The pope and several other Christian leaders were among those urging the pastor to reconsider his plan to burn the Quran on the 9/11 anniversary. The plan was eventually called off.
The website also quoted the letter as denouncing “secularism, Western extremist humanism and the man’s growing tendency toward material life” and blaming them for the “decline of human society.”
“Close cooperation and interaction among divine religions to halt such destructive moves is an absolute necessity,” the letter said, according to the website.
The Vatican did not say whether the pope planned to reply to the letter.
It is not the first missive between Iran’s hardline president and the pontiff.
In 2006, Benedict received a letter from Ahmadinejad that focused on a round of sanctions that had at that point just been imposed by the UN Security Council for Iran’s refusal to compromise on its nuclear program.

Haunted
In another report, an American hiker recently freed by Iran said Saturday she is still haunted by images of her friend and fiance in their cramped jail cells and won’t have her life back until they have been released.
Sarah Shourd spoke at a gathering of friends and family in Oakland, where she appealed to Iranian officials to show compassion and release her fiance, Shane Bauer, and friend, Josh Fattal.
“I’m not free,” she said, as she choked up with tears. “My life will not resume until Shane and Josh are with me.”
The three University of California, Berkeley graduates were near the Iran-Iraq border in July 2009 when they were detained by Iranian authorities. They were accused of illegally crossing the border and spying.
Shourd, who was freed on Sept 14, has denied Iran’s allegations and says the three were just hiking through a scenic area of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region during a vacation. She said again Saturday that like her, Fattal and Bauer are innocent.
“They’ve done nothing wrong and don’t deserve to be there for a second longer than I was.”
Shourd, 32, said she had no updates on efforts to release Fattal and Bauer and did not know how they were faring.

The US State Department has said a delegation from Oman, an ally of Iran and the United States which mediated Shourd’s release, has visited Iran to try to secure the freedom of Bauer and Fattal.
“I send them letters every day, I won’t know if they’ll receive them,” Shourd said. “I pray for a phone call, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get one, and I won’t know until the day they are released.”
About a dozen friends of Fattal, Shourd and Bauer were at the home of a friend of Shourd’s in Oakland writing letters to Fattal and Bauer. Shourd grew up in Los Angeles, but her mother, Nora, lives in Oakland.
Iran’s president has said Shourd was released because of health issues. She had a breast lump and precancerous cervical cells, according to her mother.
Shourd said she has been examined by doctors and does not have cancer, but has been told she needs to be monitored.
Shourd and Bauer had been living together in Damascus, Syria, where Bauer was working as a freelance journalist and Shourd as an English teacher. Fattal, an environmental activist, went to visit them last July.
Bauer is a native of Onamia, Minnesota, and Fattal grew up in Pennsylvania.

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