TEHRAN: Iranian soldiers captured by a militant group Jaish al-Adl near the Pakistani border in February have been freed, the rebel group and an Iranian official announced Friday.
However, there was no indication of how many of the five border guards had been released after Jaish al-Adl, which operates in southeastern Iran, claimed last month to have executed one of them.
“The soldiers were handed over some hours ago by the small terrorist group Jaish al-Adl to Iranian representatives in Pakistan,” said the Fars news agency, quoting an unidentified security official.
For its part, Jaish al-Adl announced the releases on its Twitter account.
“At the request of eminent Sunni clerics in Iran, the Iranian soldiers held hostage have been freed and handed over to a delegation of clerics,” it said.
The movement said it killed a fifth member of the group of guards in March.
“Four of the five abducted Iranian border guards have been handed over to Iranian embassy officials in Pakistan,” Fars quoted Iranian lawmaker Esmail Kosari as saying.
“We are trying to get the body of the killed guard and return it to Iran,” Kosari added, according to the report.
Fars did not give any details on when the release took place or what led up to it.
The release was yet to be confirmed by Pakistani authorities.
The five soldiers, who were serving their 24-month mandatory military service, were abducted in the restive southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan, where Iran has been confronting the Jaish al-Adl rebels.
Last month the group announced it had executed one of the five, Jamshid Danayifar, and warned of more executions to come unless Iran freed Sunni prisoners.
The Iranian authorities immediately denied the execution claim, insisting that all five soldiers were alive.
The guards are believed to have been taken into neighbouring Pakistan after being kidnapped on February 6 but the country's Foreign Office issued a denial statement condemning the incident.
In mid-February, Iran warned that it could consider sending troops across the border to free the soldiers, and denounced what it called Pakistan's inability to secure its own borders.
Border guards chief Hossein Zolfaghari has admitted that there was “negligence” in the lead-up to the kidnapping, saying those responsible were suspended, with some facing prosecution.
Jaish al-Adl took up arms in 2012 to fight for what it says are the rights of Iran's minority Sunni population.
Sistan-Balochistan, which is home to a large Sunni minority, has been the scene of unrest in recent years fuelled by its alleged marginalisation by the predominantly Shia Islamic republic.
Jaish al-Adl, whose name in Arabic means “Army of Justice,” has claimed several attacks against Iranians in the region.
These include the assassination of a local prosecutor and the killing of 14 border guards in an ambush in 2013.