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Friday, 19 May, 2000, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
Border patrol with Iran's drugbusters
Iran's border country
A major trafficking route crosses Iran's remote borderland
By Philip Fiske on the Iran-Pakistan border

Even with the air conditioner wheezing away, the heat was uncomfortable.

Through the tinted windows of the jeep, the barren landscape shimmered - and yet by local standards it was a mild day.

On hot summer afternoons here in this eastern corner of Iran, temperatures can reach as much as 55C. My companions suggested I should be glad it was still only springtime.

As we sped along the edge of the Pakistan-Iran border, I spied what I at first took to be a mirage.

Tempting trade

Only a few hundred yards beyond the tattered border fence, I could see a trio of bicycles wheeling their way westwards - they rode in neat single file, like a motorbike display team. Small-time smugglers I was told, carrying contraband.


desert
Lack of employment can lead people into crime
Perhaps they'd slip across the border when it got dark.

Smuggling is a common trade here. The barren and remote nature of this corner of Iran - Sistan and Baluchistan Province - provides very little in the way of employment and the temptation to break the law can be difficult to resist.

Iran has huge oil reserves, and fuel smuggled into Pakistan can fetch many times its local cost.

Trade in the opposite direction is all too often drugs - opium, morphine and heroin originating in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Thanks to the lucrative market in Europe and the Middle East, it is a tempting trade - one that has made Iran one of the busiest drug transit routes in the world.

Mindful of the drugs threat, the Iranian Government has sought to stop the flow of narcotics completely.

Miniature castles

It's here on the eastern borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan that their ambition has most obviously crystallised.


fort
Relics of another age - but Iranian soldiers face a modern threat
Every few kilometres along the road, we passed small army outposts, which look uncannily like miniature medieval castles - complete with neat stone battlements.

They're like relics of another age. Yet as far as the Iranian army is concerned, the task they face here is a very modern one.

The soldiers charged with stopping the drug smugglers are equipped with the most lethal kit their government can afford - Kalashnikov rifles, heavy machine guns and all the trimmings.

And there's good reason for it.

Their enemy - in this case Afghanistan-based drug traffickers - have the kind of equipment which makes tinpot dictators green with envy.

Stories of jeeps mounted with anti-aircraft guns abound.

Trenches

The local commander of the anti-drug effort was recently shot down whilst flying a reconnaissance mission over the mountains here - just one casualty in a war which has cost the lives of almost 3,000 soldiers, and perhaps three times as many traffickers.



We saw something we'd all been hoping we wouldn't

One crude method employed by the government has been to try to physically block the illegal trade.

Millions of dollars have been spent establishing a network of trenches, barbed wire fences and concrete barriers along the 1,600-kilometre-long border, all to make life as difficult as possible for the traffickers.

It is one of the largest of these concrete barriers that I was going to visit - me and my escort of 40 soldiers, which the local army headquarters felt necessary to guarantee my safety.

Off-road driving

The fortification we were visiting was a reasonable distance from the official border itself, but was still considered a danger zone.

Apparently, two Iranian soldiers had been killed there only a few weeks ago in an ambush by traffickers.

As we turned off the main road and away from the reassuring sights of the military towers, my companions became a little edgy.

Conversation started to flag, and after several kilometres of off-road driving it ground to an ominous halt.

We were nearing our destination.

Then, just as we crossed a small stream, we saw something we'd all been hoping we wouldn't.

Backed up against the concrete wall we'd come to inspect were four dusty pick-up trucks.

They were not part of our convoy.

Before I could decide whether to unzip my microphone or cower on the floor of the jeep, a dozen soldiers had the drivers of the vans pinned breathless against the barrier.

Other troops had taken up covering positions on the small cliffs above us.

With a deep breath I hopped from the safety of the car.

The four pickup trucks were loaded with what seemed to be fuel containers.

Interrogation

Several of the drums lay on their sides beside the barrier, ready to be lifted across.

These men were not smuggling drugs but fuel.

More importantly, they were unarmed, so everyone could relax.

A few soldiers were joking, others sucked heavily on cigarettes.

The men were soon arrested and marched off for interrogation - they'd probably be fined and then released.

Later that day, news filtered down from further up the border.

Apparently there'd been a clash somewhere along the Afghan frontier - at least 30 traffickers had been killed, and many more injured.

Exactly the kind of situation we'd all been afraid might have involved us, exactly the kind of situation we'd been lucky to avoid.

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See also:

10 Sep 99 | South Asia
Afghan opium crop 'largest recorded'
24 Jun 99 | Middle East
Drugs haul from Iranian camel caravan
26 Jun 99 | South Asia
Taleban wages anti-drugs war from air
15 May 99 | South Asia
Taleban destroy poppy crop
09 May 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
Afghanistan's opium harvest
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