Iran-Saudi tensions soar over hajj stampede, arms boat

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Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (AFP Photo/-)

Tehran (AFP) - Iranian-Saudi tensions intensified Wednesday as Tehran threatened a "fierce" response over delays in repatriating hajj stampede victims and the Saudi-led coalition said it had seized an Iranian boat carrying arms for Yemeni rebels.

At least 239 Iranians died in last week's tragedy near the Muslim holy city of Mecca and another 241 are listed as missing.

Tehran has accused Riyadh of hindering its efforts to bring the bodies home.

Iran's foreign ministry spokeswoman said that among the missing was Ghazanfar Roknabadi, 49, the country's former ambassador to Lebanon, a highly sensitive post.

The two rivals in the oil-rich Gulf were already at odds over Iran's support for Shiite Huthi rebels in Yemen, which lies on Saudi Arabia's southern flank. That prompted Riyadh to form a coalition of Arab nations to combat the Huthis.

"Saudi officials are failing to do their duties," Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech to graduating navy officers, following delays in the return of the hajj dead, accusing some of the officials of "slyness".

"They should know that the slightest disrespect towards tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims in Mecca and Medina and not fulfilling their obligation to transfer holy bodies will have Iran's tough and fierce reaction."

His comments underscored Iran's increased frustration at Saudi Arabia's refusal to allow a cargo plane into the kingdom to retrieve the dead and take them back to Tehran.

Last week, Tehran also claimed Riyadh had failed to issue visas for Iranian officials who sought to travel to Saudi Arabia to facilitate the repatriation of the dead and the injured.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran has so far showed self-restraint and abided by Islamic politeness and brotherhood," Khamenei added, urging the formation of a fact-finding committee by Islamic countries to investigate the causes of the stampede.


- Arms shipment intercepted -


Six days after the tragedy, many bodies have yet to be identified, and Iran fears that many of its people still unaccounted for may be among them.

Khamenei's remarks came hours after Iran summoned the Saudi ambassador for the fourth time since the stampede to demand the swift identification and repatriation of bodies.

Riyadh has accused Tehran of playing politics with tragedy.

Meanwhile, the coalition said it had seized a boat last Saturday in the Arabian Sea, 150 nautical miles off the Omani port of Salalah, loaded with weapons destined for Yemeni rebels.

It said the boat, registered to an Iranian as a fishing vessel, was carrying 18 Concourse anti-armour shells, 54 BGM17 anti-tank shells, 15 shell battery kits, four firing guidance systems and various items of launch-related equipment.

Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and its allies have repeatedly accused their Shiite rival Iran of arming the Huthi rebels who have seized swathes of Yemen, including the capital.

But despite a six-month air and sea blockade, they had not previously come up with any evidence.

In May, an Iranian boat headed to the rebel-controlled Red Sea port of Hodeida with 2,500 tonnes of aid was diverted to Djibouti following warnings from the coalition and the United States.

The coalition intervened in Yemen in March, after the rebels advanced on, and eventually captured, the southern port of Aden, where President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi had taken refuge.

Hadi fled to exile in Saudi Arabia, but returned last week three months after loyalist forces recaptured the city and began pressing north towards the capital.