At least 29 people have been killed and 53 wounded after unknown gunmen opened fire at a military parade in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz, state television reported.
The attack on Saturday came as the country marked the anniversary of the start of its 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and prompted President Hassan Rouhani to warn of a “crushing response”.
“The response of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the smallest threat will be crushing”, Rouhani said on his official website. “Those who give intelligence and propaganda support to these terrorists must answer for it.”
Those killed included members of the Revolutionary Guard and “women and children” who had come to watch the parade, the Iranian state-run IRNA news agency said.
Ali Hosein Hoseinzadeh, deputy governor in Khuzestan province, said that two attackers were killed and another two were arrested.
“Several gunmen began shooting from behind the stand during the parade. There are several killed and injured,” a correspondent told state television.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the assault which saw gunfire spray into a crowd of marching Guardsmen, bystanders and government officials watching from a nearby riser.
On Twitter, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif pointed the finger at a “foreign regime” without identifying which.
He wrote: “Terrorists recruited, trained, armed & paid by a foreign regime have attacked Ahvaz. Children and journos among casualties. Iran holds regional terror sponsors and their US masters accountable for such attacks. Iran will respond swiftly and decisively in defense of Iranian lives.”
Mostafa Koshcheshm, a Tehran-based political commentator and journalist, told Al Jazeera that Revolutionary Guard officials were blaming the Ahwazi separatist movement, which has been “nurtured, supported, and trained by Saudi Arabia”.
“It’s been operating for the past several years, they are looking to cut off and separate Iran’s energy rich province of Khuzestan from Iran, which is exactly what Saddam Hussein wanted to do,” said Koshcheshm.
“They call themselves Arab nationalists but we know they have very intimate ties to the Mujahedin-e-Khalq,” he said referring to an Iranian exiled dissident group, which is accused of killing thousands of Iranian civilians and officials.
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences after the attack and said Moscow was ready to cooperate in the fight against terrorism.
Iran’s English language news outlet, Press TV, published a video apparently showing the moment the attack started.
The parade was marking the start of the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted between 1980 and 1988.
State media described the assailants as “Takifiri gunmen,” a term previously used to describe the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
It also showed images of the immediate aftermath where paramedics were seen helping someone in military fatigues laying on the ground. Other armed security personnel shouted at each other in front of what appeared to be a viewing stand for the parade.
Ahvaz is the capital of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province. The province in the past has seen Arab separatists attack oil pipelines.