Iranian soldiers captured by Jaish-ul Adl rebels near the Pakistani border in February have been freed, the Sunni extremist group and an Iranian official announced Friday.
According to a media report, however, only four of the five abducted men were handed over to Iranian officials in Pakistan alive.
They were accompanied by the body of the fifth, whom the rebels said last month they had executed.
“The soldiers were handed over some hours ago by the small terrorist group Jaish-ul Adl to Iranian representatives in Pakistan,” said the Fars news agency, quoting an unidentified security official.
For its part, Jaish-ul Adl, which operates in southeastern Iran, announced the releases on its Twitter account.
“At the request of eminent Sunni clerics in Iran, the Iranian soldiers held hostage have been freed and handed over to a delegation of clerics,” it said.
The five soldiers, who were serving their 24-month mandatory military service, were abducted in the restive southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchestan, where Shiite-majority Iran has been confronting the Jaish-ul Adl Sunni rebels.
Last month, the group announced it had executed one of the five, Jamshid Danayifar, and warned of more executions to come unless Iran freed Sunni prisoners.
The Iranian authorities immediately denied the execution claim, insisting that all five soldiers were alive.
However, Mehr news agency, citing Iranian MP Esmail Kossari, said Friday that four soldiers “and the body of the martyr Jamshid Danayifar have been handed over to an Iranian official in Pakistan”.
The guards are believed to have been taken into neighbouring Pakistan after being kidnapped on February 6, prompting Iran to warn it was considering sending troops across the border to free them.
The incident strained relations between the neighbours, with Iran denouncing what it said was Pakistan’s inability to secure its own borders.
Border guards chief Hossein Zolfaghari has admitted that there was “negligence” in the lead-up to the kidnapping, saying those responsible were suspended, with some facing prosecution.
Jaish-ul Adl took up arms in 2012 to fight for what it says are the rights of Iran’s minority Sunni population.
Sistan-Baluchestan, which is home to a large Sunni minority, has been the scene of unrest in recent years fuelled by its alleged marginalisation in the predominantly Shiite Islamic republic.
Jaish-ul Adl, whose name in Arabic means “Army of Justice,” has claimed several attacks against Iranians in the region. These include the assassination of a local prosecutor and the killing of 14 border guards in an ambush in 2013.