Iran says diplomat missing in haj stampede still alive

Iranian officials pray over the caskets of Iranian pilgrims killed in the stampede.
Iranian officials pray over the caskets of Iranian pilgrims killed in the stampede.AFP

TEHERAN (AFP) - Iran said Wednesday a top diplomat who went missing in the deadly stampede at this year's haj pilgrimage is still alive and has asked Saudi Arabia to return him.

Ghazanfar Roknabadi was attending the annual Muslim gathering in September when pilgrims stampeded, killing at least 2,236 people in the haj's worst-ever tragedy.

Roknabadi, a 49-year-old former ambassador to Lebanon, was feared to be among the 464 Iranians killed.

But Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian was quoted by state news agency Irna as telling Al-Mayadeen television: "Our intelligence indicates that he is still alive, and we ask Saudi Arabia to return him alive."

In recent weeks, some Iranian media outlets speculated that Roknabadi may have been taken hostage.

Until last year, Roknabadi was Teheran's envoy to Beirut, a highly sensitive post.

Lebanon is home to the Iran-backed Shi'ite movement Hezbollah, which is allied with President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war and is also a bitter enemy of Israel.

Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region's powerhouses, have long had an uneasy relationship and are backing opposing sides in Syria, as well as in the conflict in Yemen.

At the time of his disappearance, foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham denied reports by some Arab media that he had travelled to Saudi Arabia under a false name.

"He entered with a normal passport to perform the haj" and "his identity and that of other missing pilgrims have been provided to Saudi Arabia," she said.

Teheran has recovered the bodies of most of those Iranians killed in the stampede, but around 15 people are still listed as missing.