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World - Middle East

Iran sends more troops to Afghan border

Undated file photos of Iranian military hardware  

High-level U.N. talks on Iran-Taliban standoff next week

September 16, 1998
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EDT (0230 GMT)

In this story:

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- The official Iranian news agency announced Wednesday that nine more army divisions, armed with tanks and artillery, had been sent to Iran's border with Afghanistan, as tensions continue to build between Iran and the Taliban, the religious group that controls most of Afghanistan.

While Taliban officials indicated Wednesday that they were ready to negotiate a peaceful solution with Iran, the Taliban's chief delegate to the United Nations warned the Iranians that the group possesses a powerful arsenal of weapons, including Scud missiles that could be used on Iranian cities in the event of an invasion.

CNN's Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre reports
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"We have deployed our soldiers with all kinds of weapons," said Hakim Mujahed.

Tensions between Iran and the Taliban escalated after eight Iranian diplomats were executed in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif when it fell to the Taliban in August.

There is also an intra-Islamic element to the standoff. Iranians are primarily Shiite Muslims, while the Taliban belong to the Sunni branch of Islam and have allegedly persecuted Afghanistan's Shiite minority. Iran has been allied with the domestic opposition to the Taliban inside Afghanistan.

U.S. officials dispute Iran's troop numbers

Iran has said it has 70,000 troops along the border and is sending another 200,000 as part of an upcoming military exercise. However, U.S. intelligence reports say that the number of troops now in place is much smaller, between 15,000 and 20,000, and that the additional divisions will bring the number to just 40,000.

Still, those sources tell CNN that the buildup gives Iran the ability to launch a cross-border incursion with "little or no notice." The Iranians could also launch air or missile strikes.

The U.S. intelligence assessment is that Iran's decision on an invasion may depend on whether the Taliban releases 40 to 50 Iranians, who Iran says are still being held, and whether those accused of killing the diplomats are extradited, as the Iranians have demanded.

Some U.S. intelligence officials think Iran is most likely to strike with assassinations, commando attacks or simply more aid to anti-Taliban forces. Iranian-trained Afghan refugees may carry out the attacks to give Iran a measure of deniability, sources say.

Albright, top Iranian diplomat may cross paths

On Monday, a U.N.-sponsored group of diplomats from Russia, the United States and the six countries bordering Afghanistan is expected to meet to discuss the standoff between Iran and the Taliban.

The meeting could include U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. That would be the highest-level contact between the two countries since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

On Wednesday, the anti-Taliban opposition claimed that it had recaptured the key central Afghan town of Bamiyan, which had been captured by the Taliban on Sunday. There was no independent confirmation of that claim, which the Taliban disputed.

The Taliban had asked the United Nations for humanitarian assistance in the war-torn Bamiyan province, which has a large Shiite population. On Wednesday, the United Nations tentatively agreed to send an assessment team -- but only if the Taliban agrees to assure its safety and to allow team members unfettered access to all affected populations in the Bamiyan area.

Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre and Reuters contributed to this report.

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