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Afghanistan says at least 70 migrants 'forced into river' by Iran border guards

The incident comes at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has seen a mass exodus of Afghan migrants from Iran
Bodies of Afghans who died while attempting to cross borders into Iran from the western province of Herat on 2 May 2020 (Reuters/screengrab)

Afghan authorities are investigating reports that Iranian border guards tortured dozens of migrants and threw them into a river to prevent their entry into Iran. 

Afghanistan's foreign ministry said on Saturday that it had launched an inquiry into the incident, while a presidential official said at least 70 Afghans seeking to cross to Iran from the bordering Herat province were "beaten and pushed into the Haridud river," according to Reuters.

The Harirud river basin is shared by Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan.

Doctors at Herat District Hospital told Reuters they had received the bodies of Afghan migrants, some of whom had drowned.

"So far, five bodies have been transferred to the hospital. Of these bodies, it is clear that four died due to drowning," said Aref Jalali, head of Herat District Hospital.

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The Iranian consulate in Herat denied the allegations of torture and subsequent drowning of dozens of Afghan migrant workers by border police.

"Iranian border guards have not arrested any Afghan citizens," the consulate said in a statement on Saturday. Iranian embassy officials in the Afghan capital Kabul were not immediately available for a comment.

One Afghan national, Noor Mohammad, said he was one of 57 other Afghans from Gulran District of Herat caught by Iranian border guards on Saturday when they were trying to cross into Iran in search of work.

"After being tortured, the Iranian soldiers threw all of us in the Harirud river," Mohammad told Reuters.

Shir Agha, who said he also survived the violence, said at least 23 of the 57 people thrown by Iranian soldiers into the river were dead.

"Iranian soldiers warned us that if we do not throw ourselves into the water, we will be shot," said Agha.

Afghan migrants
Bodies of Afghans who died while attempting to reach Iran on Saturday (Reuters/screengrab)

Local Afghan officials said that it was not the first time that Afghans had been tortured and killed by Iranian police guarding the 920km-long border.

In a tweet to Iranian officials, Herat's governor, Sayed Wahid Qatali, ​​​​said: "Our people are not just some names you threw into the river. One day we will settle accounts."

The incident could trigger a diplomatic crisis between Iran and Afghanistan at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has seen a mass exodus of Afghan migrants from Iran with many testing positive for Covid-19.

Up to 2,000 Afghans daily cross the border from Iran, a global coronavirus hotspot, into Herat.

As of Sunday, at least 541 infected people are from Herat province, which recorded 13 deaths, with the majority of positive cases found among Afghan returnees from Iran, said Rafiq Shirzad, a health ministry spokesman in Herat.