BAKU, Azerbaijan – Security services in Azerbaijan have arrested 22 people they say were hired by Iran to carry out terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Israeli embassies as well as Western-linked groups and companies.
The national security ministry said Wednesday that the 22, all Azerbaijan citizens, had been trained in Iran, its southern neighbor, by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. It did not specify when the arrests were made.
In February, Azerbaijan announced the arrest of another suspected terrorist group allegedly working for Iran's secret services, and in January it arrested two people accused of plotting to kill two teachers at a Jewish school in the capital, Baku.
In 2007, Azerbaijan convicted 15 people in connection with an alleged Iranian-linked spy network accused of passing intelligence on Western and Israeli activities.
Azerbaijani authorities said a Revolutionary Guard operative, Akper Pakravesh, recruited an Azeri identified as N. Kerimov while he was in Iran in 1999 and gave him the job of assembling a group of other Azerbaijanis to act as spies.
The security ministry said in its statement that Pakravesh met with members of the group in Moscow and in the Syrian capital of Damascus, giving them with financing and equipment.
Automatic assault rifles, grenades, ammunition, explosives were seized during the group's arrest, officials said.
Planned targets included diplomatic missions, the offices of a Jewish organization, the local headquarters of international oil giant BP and an American-themed fast food restaurant.
Israeli authorities have linked Iran to three other incidents -- claims that Iran denies.
Authorities in Thailand in February arrested a group of Iranian citizens they said were planning a bomb attack on Israeli diplomats.
In the same month in New Delhi, the wife of an Israeli diplomat and three others were wounded by attackers using magnetic bombs. That same day, a similar bomb was found on the car of a driver for the Israeli Embassy in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Tehran denies any links to the attacks outside its borders, but accuses Israel of directing the slayings of Iranian scientists as well as other clandestine acts, such as a computer virus that targeted uranium enrichment equipment.
Azerbaijan, an oil-rich former Soviet nation of 9 million people wedged between Russia and Iran, has nurtured close relations with the United States and played an active role in Western-led counter-terrorist programs. That foreign policy has placed a strain on its ties with Iran, which hosts a sizable ethnic Azeri community.
Authorities in Baku have repeatedly insisted, however, that they will not permit use of the country for any military action against Iran.