Gunmen staged a deadly attack on a high-profile military parade in the southwest of Iran, killing at least 24 people, including children, and injuring at least 60.
The four assailants were hiding at a park adjacent to the parade grounds, wearing military uniforms, before opening fire in an attack that lasted 10 minutes, according to the semi-official news agency ISNA and state television.
The attack struck the annual Holy Defence Week parade in Ahvaz marking the anniversary of the eight-year war with Iraq.
Ahwazi Democratic Popular Front, an obscure separatist group demanding autonomy for Iran’s Arab minority, took responsibility for what it described in a statement as “a triumphant operation” against the “occupying” forces of Tehran.
Isis also later claimed responsibility for the attack, via its Amaq news platform, incorrectly suggesting Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, was at the parade.
Television footage showed marching soldiers suddenly becoming distracted, crouching and then running as gunfire crackled across a wide boulevard in the city of Ahvaz, a largely ethnic Arab provincial capital of 1.2 million that is the country’s petroleum industry centre.
Photos posted on social media and published by Iranian news agencies showed uniformed men, including one marching band member holding a saxophone, as well as panicked civilian women and children running away, and injured men and a bloodied child being carried away.
Iranian news agencies cited the deputy governor as saying that a four-year-old was killed in the attack.
“Get down on the ground!” a man is heard shouting in one video, as heavy gunfire erupts in the background and men lie on the roadway. “Stay down!”
Video showed ambulances at the parade site. Among the dead was a journalist, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported. Of four reported assailants two were killed while two escaped, according to Iranian news outlets.
Iranian state television called the incident “a terrorist attack” carried out by “takfiris,” or Sunni extremists. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, blamed the US and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, for the attack.
“Terrorists recruited, trained, armed and paid by a foreign regime have attacked Ahvaz.,” he wrote on Twitter. “Children and journalists among casualties. Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their US masters accountable for such attacks. Iran will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of Iranian lives.”
Terrorists recruited, trained, armed & paid by a foreign regime have attacked Ahvaz. Children and journos among casualties. Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their US masters accountable for such attacks. Iran will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of Iranian lives. pic.twitter.com/WG1J1wgVD9— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 22, 2018
Revolutionary Guard spokesman Brigadier General Ramezan Sharif claimed the assailants had backing from Saudi Arabia, though he cited no evidence, according to the Tasnim news agency.
The nature of the target and sophistication of the operation bore the hallmarks of Al Qaeda-inspired groups operating in the Middle East. Isis last year killed 18 in highly symbolic attacks in Tehran targeting the Iranian parliament and shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran’s Islamic system.
Mostly ethnic Persian and Azeri Iran’s Arab minority has frequently complained of discrimination. In the past few years, several Arab militant and separatist groups have staged small attacks on infrastructure in the country’s southwest, a region that boasts much of Iran’s oil resources. Iran has accused Saudi Arabia and the US of backing the groups. Ahmad Mola Nissi, leader of one Ahvaz separatist organisation, was shot dead in the Netherlands last year in what experts suspect was a hit ordered by Tehran.
The UK's ambassador to Iran, Robert Macaire, condemned the violence in a statement posted to Twitter. "Wherever it happens terrorism must be condemned. All our condolences to the families of the victims."
The attack will likely have broader security consequences. Brigadier General Sharif noted that the regular army rather than the elite Revolutionary Guard had been in charge of organising the parade. The Guard has sought to increase its power over the country’s institutions.
The country’s southwest has also been a centre of anti-government protests over water shortages, failing infrastructure, and rising prices that began in the final days of last year and have continued intermittently over the spring and summer. Iranian security forces have managed to suppress the protests without using deadly force.