Two Iranian border guards and one Taliban fighter have been killed after shooting broke out near a border post between Iran and Afghanistan, sharply escalating rising tensions between the two countries amid a dispute over water rights.
“Today, in Nimroz province, Iranian border forces fired toward Afghanistan, which was met with a counter-reaction,” Afghan interior ministry spokesman Abdul Nafi Takor said in a statement.
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“The situation is under control now. The Islamic Emirate [Afghanistan] does not want to fight with its neighbours,” the spokesman said, without identifying the victims.
He said one person had been killed on each side and several injured. However, Iran’s official IRNA news agency later said two Iranian border guards had been killed and two Iranian civilians injured.
The semiofficial, English-language newspaper Tehran Times said three Iranian border guards were killed.
The violence came as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi this month warned the Taliban not to violate a 1973 treaty by restricting the flow of water from the Helmand River to Iran’s eastern regions. Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers have denied the accusation.
Enayatullah Khowarazmi, Taliban Ministry of Defence spokesman, said “Unfortunately, today once again in the border areas of Kong district of Nimroz province, there was a shooting by Iranian soldiers, [and] a conflict … broke out.”
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers dialogue and negotiation to be a reasonable way for any problem. Making excuses for war and negative actions is not in the interest of any of the parties,” Khowarazmi said.
Iran, in turn, accused Taliban forces of shooting first.
IRNA quoted Iran’s deputy police chief, Qasem Rezaei, as saying, “Without observing international laws and good neighbourliness, Taliban forces started shooting at the Sasoli checkpoint … drawing a decisive response.”
Following the clash, Iranian authorities closed the Milak-Zaranj border post, a major commercial crossing – and not the site of the clash – until further notice, IRNA said.
According to the outlet, Iran’s border guards said in a statement they had “used their superior heavy fire to inflict casualties and serious damage”.
The advocacy group HalVash, which reports on issues affecting the Baluch people in the predominately Sunni province of Sistan and Baluchestan, quoted residents in the area as saying that the fighting took place near the Kang district of Nimroz. It said some people in the area had fled the violence.
Raisi’s remarks directed to the Taliban on Iran’s rights were some of the strongest yet over the long-running concerns about water in Iran. The Helmand River, which is more than 1,000 kilometres long and flows across the border, is being dammed on the Afghan side to generate electricity and irrigate agricultural land.
Drought has been a problem in Iran for some 30 years, but has worsened over the past decade, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The Iran Meteorological Organization says that an estimated 97 percent of the country now faces some level of drought.
Earlier on Saturday, the Taliban’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi met an Iranian envoy to Afghanistan to discuss the Helmand River water rights, according to tweets from Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Zia Ahmad.
But tensions have otherwise been rising. Another video posted online in recent days purportedly showed a standoff with Iranian forces and the Taliban as Iranian construction workers tried to reinforce the border between the two countries.
In recent days, pro-Taliban accounts online also have been sharing a video with a song calling on the acting defence minister, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, to stand up to Iran. Mullah Yaqoob is the son of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s late founder and first supreme leader.