By Safa Haeri

LONDON FIRST SEP. (IPS) As the leader of the Taleban hinted for the first time that the 11 Iranian diplomats and one journalist who disappeared in Mazare Sharif 3 weeks ago may have been killed by his soldiers, the Islamic Republic of Iran warned that the military manoeuvre that started on the borders with Afghanistan may lead to an outright Iranian intervention in that country.

Mollah Mohammad Omar, the Amir al Mo'menin (spiritual leader) of the Taleban, or the so-called students in Islamic theology who now rule over more than 90 per cent of the devastated Afghanistan told Monday the BBC Poshtun language service that the if the missing Iranians are not in the hands of the opposition, then they must be considered as being killed.

But he immediately added that if this is the case, this has happened without the knowledge of himself as well as his senior military officers and that there had been no prior plan for the killing of the Iranian diplomats.

"Instead", he said, "we would have liked to have them in our hands so we could apply pressure on the Iranian government to curtail its flagrant meddling in our internal affairs", the Mollah told the BBC.

Unimpressed by these first hand revelations, a senior Iranian official bluntly warned the Taleban that if they do not hand the Iranian prisoners alive and immediately, Iran may well end up by attacking Afghanistan.

"The Ashoura III manoeuvres are not without relations with the disappearing of the Iranian diplomats and the aim of the manoeuvres is very clear: In case the Taleban refuses to hand them alive and without conditions, the Iranian forces will be ready for military operations" (inside Afghanistan) said Mahmoud Mohammadi, the senior spokesman of the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

The manoeuvres that for the first time combines the land and air forces of the Revolutionary guards started early Tuesday morning in an area of 600 square kilometres near the Afghan border.

More than 70.000 sepahis (revolutionary guards) and basiji (volounteers) backed by heavy tanks, modern artillery pieces, rockets and aviation are taking part at the manoeuvres, which is unprecedented by its scale.

"Any country that intends to violate the sacred borders of Islamic Iran will se its hands cut off by the valiant armed sons of our nation", warned general Yahya Rahim Safavi, the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards.

But the Taleban has counter-warned Iran against any military intervention in their country or face the most humiliating defeat they have ever suffered.

As both Iran and the Taleban asked the United Nations for mediation concerning the case of the missing diplomats, analysts in Tehran and Pakistan expressed fears that the Iranian military manoeuvres degenerates into an open war between Iran and Afghanistan.

"We do not intend to aggress anyone, but at the same time we shall not tolerate that our neighbours, backed by foreign powers, endanger the security and peace in our nation or other neighbours" general Rahim Safavi pointed out in a direct allusion to the Taleban.

Mr Mohammadi urged the Taleban to announce openly and publicly that the Iranian diplomats are alive and safe and that all Iranian prisoners will be freed immediately.

He reiterated that Iran should consider all the ways and the means in relation with the release of its captured diplomats, including military options.

Analysts in Tehran told the IPS that while it is now clear to every one that the Iranian diplomats are dead, what is less clear is the authorities insistence on not accepting the facts and pushing the situation to the brink of war with the Taleban.

Observers said the behaviour of Tehran concerning the missing diplomats is a reminder of the case of the four Iranians, 2 diplomats, one journalist and their drivers killed in Beirut by the Lebanese Phalange 14 years ago but that Tehran insist that they are alive and probably in the hands of the Israelis.

Observers says once Iran convinced that its diplomats are killed, or that there is no way to get any news about them, then it may feel itself bound to take military action against the Taleban, "something like the US missile attack on Bin Laden's camps" hinted one Iranian source.

But any war between Iran and Afghanistan will benefit the Taleban.

"Afghanistan is a devastated country. The Taleban have nothing to loose from a military confrontation with Iran. Let the Iranian aviation bomb out Kabul and there would nothing for the television cameras to show. But if the Taleban hit one Iranian town, it will be regarded as a big victory for them and a great humiliation for the Iranians" commented Abdol Bari Al Atwan, the Editor of the London-based Arab independent daily "Al Quds Al Arabi".

Pakistani diplomat and observers doubt that the present tension at Iran-Afghan borders would end in a war. First of all, they think Pakistan will never allow the Taleban to attack Iran.

Mrs Binazir Bhutto, Pakistan's former Primer Minister said if the Taleban do not free the Iranian diplomats within 24 hours, the government should cut relations with the Taleban. "Pakistan has not the right to sacrifice its friendship and important relations with Iran for the sake of the Taleban" she said.

Pakistani sources notes that as all efforts to get some news about the whereabouts of the Iranian diplomats have failed, Islamabad has been placed in the difficult position to choose between the Taleban it has backed to the victory in Afghanistan and Iran.

"This is a very difficult choice", agreed Mohammad Sarvar, a Pakistani journalist in London.

But as the Taleban are sending more troops and weapons to the borders with Iran and as military sources in Tehran reveals that the pasdaran are to stay at the borders even after the end of the 3 days manoeuvre, simple incidents can detonate the powder barrel.

"Let's be clear and say it openly that the (Ashoura III) manoeuvres are in direct relations with events on the other side of our Eastern borders and it's message for the plotters over there is that: We shall cut the hands of the plotters" wrote the radical daily "Jomhouri Eslami". ENDS 5 IRANAFQAN 199804