TEHERAN (AFP) - Gunmen killed at least 14 Iranian guards on the Pakistani border, in a rugged area used by drug traffickers, prompting Teheran to retaliate by hanging 16 "rebels", reports said on Saturday.
The ambush on the porous border happened overnight in the south-eastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, home to a large community of minority Sunni Muslims, unlike the rest of Shi'ite-dominated Iran.
"Fourteen border guards were killed during armed clashes in the region of Saravan, and five others were wounded," the official IRNA news agency said, citing what it called an informed source. The unnamed source identified the gunmen as "bandits or rebels opposed to the Islamic republic".
In retaliation for the attack, the Iranian authorities said they on Saturday executed 16 "rebels" held at a prison in the region.
"Sixteen rebels linked to groups hostile to the regime were hanged this morning in the prison of Zahedan in response to the death of border guards in Saravan," Mr Mohammad Marzieh, attorney-general of Sistan-Baluchestan, was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.
"We warned the rebel groups that any attack targeting civilians or members of the security forces would not go unanswered," he added.
Deputy Interior Minister Ali Abdollahi said the guards were killed during the ambush set by Iranians who were "members of hostile groups". He added that "three soldiers have been taken hostage and taken to the other side of the border in Pakistan", without giving further details.
The region has seen bloody clashes over the past few years, and officials say more than 4,000 police officers and soldiers have been killed in three decades of fighting with drug traffickers.