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Iran Says It Repelled Taliban Attack; Milita Denies Claim

By John Daniszewski
Los Angeles Times
TEHRAN, Iran

Iran claimed Thursday to have beaten back an attack on a remote border post by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia, saying it inflicted heavy casualties in what would mark the two sides' first armed face-off after more than a month of threats and saber-rattling.

But the Taliban dismissed the Iranian claims of a three-hour battle as propaganda, denying that any such engagement had even taken place. And Iran's report of fighting could not be verified independently because observers have been denied access to the border areas.

Even if some encounter did occur, it appeared doubtful by late Thursday that it represented the start of a much-feared war between Shiite Muslim-ruled Iran and the mainly Sunni Muslim Taliban. Iranian spokesmen said calm conditions had resumed all along the border between the two countries.

Iran and the Taliban, an extremist force that claims to be promoting the world's purest form of Islam, have become bitter rivals over differences in their interpretation of Islam and charges that the Taliban - which controls 90 percent of Afghanistan's territory - has oppressed the Shiite minority in that country.

Antipathy flared into open hostility last month after the Taliban admitted that its soldiers had killed eight Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist after conquering Mazar-i-Sharif, a northern stronghold of resistance to the Taliban.

Iran's report of the battle Thursday came as a senior U.N. envoy was leaving Iran for Pakistan, where he hoped to meet with Taliban and Pakistani officials to try to defuse the danger of a regional conflict.

By making public the reported clash, one Western observer here speculated, Iran may have hoped to convince U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Taliban leaders in Afghanistan and their Pakistani friends that a real war is imminent unless the Taliban responds urgently to Iran's demands to end the crisis.