‘Completely unfounded’: Iran denies recruiting Afghan refugees to fight in Syria
TEHRAN - Iran on Wednesday denied as "completely unfounded" a report that it is recruiting Afghan refugees to fight in Syria to help its ally battle rebels.
Citing Afghans and Western officials, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards was offering Iranian residency and $500 monthly stipends to thousands of Afghans to fight Syrian rebels.
"The claim of the US paper is completely unfounded and is aimed at damaging Iran's reputation in Afghanistan," foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said in a statement carried by Iranian media.
"This is an insult to the people of Afghanistan and the Wall Street Journal needs to apologise to them," she added.
According to the newspaper, details of the alleged recruitment of Afghans were posted last week on a blog aimed at Afghan refugees in Iran, and an Afghan religious cleric confirmed the information.
Iran's ISNA news agency, however, reported that the office of Grand Ayatollah Mohaghegh Kabuli in the holy city of Qom later denied it.
The Journal also quoted a Western official in Iran as saying recruiting Afghans was meant to reduce casualties among Iranian Revolutionary Guards personnel and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia.
A key ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against rebels since 2011's anti-government protests turned to a civil war, Iran says it provides Damascus with military and financial support.
While Iran denies having any official military presence on Syrian battlefields, Iranian media from time to time report the deaths of Iranian volunteer fighters there.