Iranian troops on alert against Afghanistan
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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Iran's leading religious leader Tuesday put the country's military on alert in a further escalation of the crisis with Afghanistan over the killing of Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, successor to the Ayatollah Khomeini and commander-in-chief of the country's half-million-strong armed forces, told senior commanders of the Revolutionary Guards "The situation of Afghanistan is a highly crucial issue."
He spoke only hours after the bodies of seven Iranian diplomats, killed when they were caught up in factional fighting in Afghanistan five weeks ago, were brought back to emotional scenes at Tehran's international airport.
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, heading thousands of tearful mourners including Cabinet ministers, top armed forces officers, international diplomats and bereaved relatives, said at a solemn airport ceremony on Monday night: "I assure you that we will defend the integrity and honor of the sacred system of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the best of our ability."
The fundamentalist Taliban on Thursday admitted killing the diplomats during the takeover of the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Afghan opposition to the Taliban. Taliban said the diplomats were killed by militiamen acting without instruction from the government.
Iran wants those responsible for the deaths of the diplomats to be tried in Iranian courts, but the Taliban said that, if the killers are caught, they will be tried in Afghanistan.
Khamenei demanded on Monday that Pakistan, which Iran holds partly responsible for the murders, drop its support of the Taliban. Pakistan has called on Iran and Afghanistan to exercise restraint, but says it is not responsible for what happens in Afghanistan.
Pakistan was the first of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government, and as many as 40 percent of the militia members studied in religious schools in Pakistan.
Taliban spokesman Mullah Wakil Ahmad responded to Khamenei's statements, saying that Iran is blatantly interfering in Afghanistan's internal affairs and that the language used by Khamenei is unbecoming of his status and reflects "his mental ineptitude."
Iran has massed tens of thousands of troops on the Afghanistan border and threatened live fire exercises since the diplomats were killed.
Iran says that thousands of Shiite Muslims were massacred in Mazar-i-Sharif when the Taliban took the city from Afghan forces opposed to the Taliban. Amnesty International and the United Nations have supported the Iranian claim.
The Iranians are predominately Shiite Muslims while the Taliban group which has been conquering Afghanistan over the past several years is a Sunni Islamic group which is less tolerant in its attitudes than most Sunnis. The conflict between the Sunni and Shiite divisions of Islam are considerable, and along the Iran-Afghanistan border they involve ethnic or tribal differences as well.
Analysts said they didn't believe Iran is preparing for a full-scale attack on the Taliban, but did not rule out limited strikes into Afghanistan, where the Taliban hold about 90 percent of the country.
Correspondent Peter Bergen and Reuters contributed to this report.
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