Sunni Muslim militants have killed one of the five Iranian border guards they have been holding hostage for the past six weeks, the semi-official Fars News Agency reported on Monday.
It identified the victim as Jamshid Danaei-Fard, shown sitting against a mud wall in an unidentified location with the other four captives in a grainy photo apparently taken by their captors.
Fars, quoting an "informed source", said the four other hostages were in good health, without giving further details.
The guards were seized while patroling the lawless frontier with Pakistan on February 8. Jaish al-Adl (Army of Justice), an Iranian Sunni Muslim rebel group in Sistan-Baluchistan province later claimed responsibility.
The group claimed responsibility on its Twitter account for the abduction and posted photographs on Facebook and a 15-minute video in their YouTube account
allegedly showing the captive guards.
The group said on its website on Sunday that it had killed the border guard. Neither Tehran nor Islamabad could immediately confirm the report. Pakistani authorities said on Monday they were still investigating.
Hossein-Ali Amiri, the Iranian deputy interior minister who previously confirmed the killing of the guard by the rebel group, in a new statement said he hoped the news was not true.
Amiri and the Sistan-Baluchistan provincial governor confirmed the execution according to a local source, but said there is still uncertainty over the news.
Initially the Iranian interior ministry rejected the news, but it was later confirmed by Sistan-Baluchistan provincial officials, home to a large Sunni minority of ethnic Baluch. The controversy has Iran calling on Pakistan to state its “official position”.
Iran has protested the kidnappings and accused Pakistani authorities of failing to protect their shared border. Tehran believed the five were being held in Pakistani territory and dispatched a delegation to Islamabad to pressure Pakistan to free the frontier guards.
One day after Tehran said it might send forces into Pakistan to free the kidnapped border guards if Islamabad did not take measures to secure their release, Pakistan’s foreign ministry delivered a statement urging Iran to respect its borders. It also said it was possible the kidnappers, along with the abducted guards, were still hiding within the Iranian territory.
Jaish al-Adl in its latest statement, issued on Sunday, March 24, threatened to kill another hostage “if Iran does not free Sunni prisoners”. The group had previously said it would not free the border guards unless 50 Jaish al-Adl members held in Syria, as well as 50 Jaish al-Adl members and 200 other Sunni inmates held in Iranian prisons, were freed.
The kidnapping has further inflamed tension between Tehran and Islamabad over sectarian violence. Iran accuses Pakistan of supporting the rebels.
The Iranian deputy interior minister warned the issue will affect the diplomatic talks between Iran and Pakistan by making them more complicated.
Despite Twitter being blocked in Iran, the hashtag #Freeiraniansoldiers
became viral on Twitter after the kidnapping and tens of thousands of outraged tweets came in support of the abductees.
(Some information for this report contributed by Reuters.)