By Safa Haeri, IPS Editor

PARIS 10TH AUG. (IPS) As the whereabouts of 11 Iranian diplomats reported missing after the Taliban overrun Saturday the northern Afghan city of Mazare Sharif, the last stronghold of the Iran-backed anti-Taliban coalition of former president Burhaneddine Rabbani, fear grew Monday that they may have been shot by the invading forces

Mr Aladdin Broujerdi, the Iranian Special Representative for Afghan Affairs told the Iranian Radio Sunday that he was speaking with the Iranian charge in Mazare Sharif when the Taliban entered the premises by firing into the doors and took all of them to an unknown destination.

But Taliban spokesmen in Mazare Sharif contacted by telephone denied the Iranian charges, saying that when they entered the consulate of the Islamic Republic in this city, it was empty. "We don't know where they are. They may have evacuated the city with the fleeing forces or be hiding somewhere" said Mr Abdolmamnan Niazi, a Taliban spokesman, confirming however that they held prisoner 33 Iranians, without further precision concerning their identity.

"They may have been killed", added Vakil Ahmad Motevakkil, an official spokesman in Kabul.

Referring to the hating of the Iranians by the Taliban, a sentiment generated by the fact that not only Tehran has never recognised them but systematically backed the anti-Taliban "Islamic Alliance" in the one hand while representing them as an extremist organisation trained and armed by Pakistan, financed by the Saudi Arabia and manipulated by the United States, an Iranian analyst speculated that the diplomats may well have been killed the very moment the Taliban broke into the consulate.

Describing the capture of the diplomats as an act of "gross violation" of international conventions concerning the immunity of diplomats and the entering of the Iranian consulate as an "outright and blunt aggression" against the sovereignty of an independent state, Mr Broujerdi added that he was holding both the Taliban and Pakistan responsible for the safety and well being of the diplomat. He also called on the United Nations and other international agencies to help Iran securing the release of the diplomats.

[Observers said Iranian authorities are finding themselves in an awkward position when they accuse the Taliban of violating international conventions by entering by force into the consulate and abducting their diplomat, for this is exactly what they did 19 years ago when Iranian student stormed the American Embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days]

Visiting Iran-Afghan borders on Monday, general Yahya Rahim Safavi, the Commander-In-Chief of the Revolutionary Guards of the Islamic revolution told the Taliban that any ill treatment of the captured Iranian diplomats or any aggression against the Islamic Republic will be met with "appropriate but merciless measure" from Iran. He did not emphasised what kind of action Tehran may take in case the diplomats were assassinated.

"As far as the Islamic Republic of Iran is concerned, Tehran is ready to offer all it can, both as a neighbour and as the president of the Islamic Conference Organisation to find peaceful solution, but in case these efforts are refused or not conclusive and the conflict endanger the Iranian national interests, Iran will reserve for itself the right of any measure it considers appropriate to take", an official commentary read over Tehran Radio warned.

Contrary to Pakistan which backs the Taliban and was the first country to officially recognise them after they entered Kabul two years ago, Iran does not have official relations with them. However, Kamal Kharrazi, the Iranian Foreign Minister, in a telephone conversation with his Pakistani counterpart and a letter to Kofi Annan, the UN's General Secretary, hold Islam-Abad responsible for the safeguard and the immunity of the Iranian diplomats.

For its part, the official Iranian News Agency IRNA revealed Sunday that one of its correspondent, Mahmoud Saromi was among the captured Iranians and called on all international agencies and press institutes, including the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF, or Reporters Without Borders, an organisation fighting for the protection and freedom of journalists world-wide) to press the Talibans to release Mr Saromi unconditionally.

Pakistan's new Foreign Minister, Sar Taj Aziz immediately assured the Iranians to do his best to look after the well being of the captured Iranians.

In their reaction to the fall of Mazare Sharif, Iranian media roundly accused Pakistan to after the domination of the whole of Afghanistan. "It is not the Taliban who captured Mazare Sharif, but Pakistan, which now virtually controls this war-torn Muslim nation", wrote the radical daily "Jomhuri Eslami".

The press also criticised the Iranian Foreign Ministry for its "leniency and diplomacy of compromise" concerning both the Taliban and their Pakistani master. "By openly interfering in Afghanistan's affairs, Pakistan has crossed the red line, a move Iran must not underestimate" one newspaper said. "The confuse strategy of our diplomacy in Afghanistan and with Pakistan has encouraged aggressors", added the daily "Salam", close to the government of the ayatollah Mohammad Khatami.

"Iran never adopted a clear cut diplomacy in this strategic area"; observed Dr Ebrahim Yazdi, a former Foreign Minister who is the leader of the tolerated Iran Freedom Movement

"Iran's diplomacy in Afghanistan and with its relations with Pakistan until now was decided by people not familiar with the region. The Foreign Ministry failed to enlist experts and genuine analysts on the area. Now time has arrived for a quick revision of our diplomacy," said Dr Sadeq Ziba Kalam, a professor of politics at Tehran University.

Opposition sources accused Pakistan of having helped the Talibans in their blitzkrieg against Mazare Sharif. A spokesman for Amad Shah Masoud, the legendary Afghan warrior said at least 1500 Pakistani soldiers and students coming from Pakistan joined the Talibans during the assault on Mazare Sharif and the opposing Coalition.

Sources in Pakistan and in Iran said the early morning attack followed intense aerial attack and heavy ground shelling of the city by Taliban forces, profiting from an ongoing fight between two anti-Taliban factions.

Confirming the fall of Mazare Sharif, Radio "Shari'a", controlled by Taliban monitored by the IPS in Tehran said their forces were now marching towards Heyratan, probably the last stronghold still in the hands of the anti-Taliban forces.

According to the same Radio, local commanders in Baharat, Badakhshan and Samangan have announced their solidarity with the Taliban, hoisting the Taliban flag over official buildings and expressed loyalty to the government in Kabul.

As the Taliban pushed their advance northward, guards on the borders of Afghanistan with neighbouring Tajikestan and Uzbakistan were placed on a state of alert. A commander of the Russian guards in charge of the border with Afghanistan warned the Talibans against any aggression on neighbouring Tajikestan.

An earlier call on the Taliban by Russian and Uzbek officials to stop their advance on Mazare Sharif was flatly rejected by Kabul, the Taliban accusing the Russian and the Uzbek of "gross interference" in their interior affairs.

"This will not solve any problem. It will not be the end of the war nor the beginning of peace in Afghanistan. The war will continue, the conflict will get more complicated and as the Taliban will extend their rule over the whole of the country, the resistance against their harsh Islamic rule will increase", predicted Dr Changuiz Pahlevan, an Iranian expert of Central Asia.

This was exactly in line with the Iranian official reaction. "Not only Taliban's recent relative victories does not mean the end of crisis and conflicts in Afghanistan, but it signals the beginning of a new, critical phase", commented Tehran Radio.

Dr Pahlevan also observed that the Iranian policy in Afghanistan lacked clarity. Noting that while Pakistan was always firmly behind the Taliban, Tehran did not show same kind of clear-cut backing for Afghanistan's other factions even though it was supporting them.

Calling on all international organisations but particularly on neighbouring nation to not remain indifferent towards developments in Afghanistan, the Teheran Radio commentary regretted that some neighbours, short of helping calm the conflict and find a peaceful solution, did heightened it instead. "Such a policy will surely lead to a more dangerous and complicated results", the radio said in a reference to Pakistan.

Both Pahlevan and Ziba Kalam said the new developments in Afghanistan will complicate further the relations between Tehran and Islam-Abad.

"Iran's diplomacy was on the belief that by compromising with Pakistan and by entering a new, friendlier relations with Riyadh and opening a kind of dialogue with Washington will provide it a greater role in Afghanistan. This was a great error which must be addressed quickly", they said in separate interviews.

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