Iranian authorities said today they would step up a military campaign against Kurdish rebels following reports that guerrillas killed as many as 60 of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's elite Revolutionary Guards in a weekend ambush.
The attack, part of an escalating guerrilla war being waged by autonomy-seeking Kurds in western Iran, occurred Sunday night on a rural highway near the government-held town of Sardasht on the Iraqi border.
Interior Minister Hashem Sabbaghian, responding to the news of the attack, said today, "we must spread the fight to the mountains and the roads. We shall send forces to the area after studies."
Revolutionary Guards in the area also said a major offensive will be mounted in the next few days aimed at crushing the insurgents.
Senior Army officers in Tehran, however, have played down the suggestion of an all-out offensive.
"we will take some strong action. We want to clear the area around Sardasht," a senior aide to armed forces chief of staff Gen. Nasser Shaker said today. "i do not believe a major offensive will take place."
The aide added that a significant reinforcement of security forces in the area was not required.
Initial reports reaching the capital yesterday put the number of dead in the ambush at 22, but Sabbaghian was quoted today as saying that out of a unit of 72 men, only five had returned. Another 28 may have been taken hostage, Iranian press reports said.
Two soldiers were killed and 18 injured in another attack by Kurdish guerrillas in the same area on the same day, military sources confirmed. Other attacks were reported on four border posts.
There is some uncertainty as to the circumstances in which the Revolutionary Guards died. Tehran press reports suggested that they found themselves caught in a cross fire between insurgents and army units that had rushed to the secene of the shooting but apparently failed to identify their targets in the dark.
The attacks were the culmination of increasing activity in the last week by guerrillas harassing road communications between Army-held towns from which the rebels retreated last month.
Several thousand well-armed Kurdish guerrillas gave up the towns with only token resistance and slipped away to mountain strongholds that they could more easily defend.
The attack on the Revolutionary Guards brought an emotional condemnation by the government.
"a group of godless persons atttacked the cars of Pasdaran [Revolutionary Guards], these roses of the revolution, and massacred them," said a statement from the office of the deputy prime minister for revolutionary affairs.
However, Revolutionary Guards in the northwestern city of Tabriz came under scathing criticism in an unusal statement, by Ayatollah Khomeini's representative, Ayatollah Mohammed Ali Qazi Tabatabai. In a newspaper interview, he accused them of behaving in the same way as the shah's dreaded secret police, SAVAK.
He went on to accuse revolutionary committees, the revolutionary prosecutor general's office and the provincial governor general's office of failing to act according to the goals of the revolution.
The acitvities of the fanatical Revolutionary Guards have been the source of a major grievance among Kurdish residents in the western Iran who had demands the guards' withdrawal before bloody clashes that erupted in August.
Recent developments in the Krudish region have also been accompanied by sharp press criticism of the government's policies toward the Kurdish question.
An editorial in the newspaper of the Moslem People's Republican Party, supported by followers of Iran's second-ranking religious leader, Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari, warned today that "a problem which could be solved in Kurdistan is now assuming greater dimensions and is going to turn into a deep-rooted civil war."
An article in the Tehran daily Etelaat accused the "government and directors of the revolution" of neglecting Kurdish demands and charged others with obstructing and preventing implementation of recommendations submitted by government investigators on the causes of Kurdish disaffection.