Tehran: Iran buried on Monday a senior military officer it called the "architect" of its missile defences, killed in a massive explosion at a Revolutionary Guards` arms depot that authorities said was an accident.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attended the ceremony for Brigadier General Hassan Moqaddam and the 16 other Revolutionary Guards who died in the explosion at their military base Saturday. The blast was so big it was felt in the capital Tehran, some 45 km (28 miles) away.
Officials said the accident happened as troops were moving munitions at the base west of Tehran and have denied suggestions that it may have been sabotage. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for better observance of safety standards at military sites.
On October 12 last year, a similar blast at a Revolutionary Guards munitions store killed and wounded several servicemen in Khoramabad, western Iran. Authorities said that explosion was an accident.
"Martyr Moqaddam was the main architect of the Revolutionary Guards` canon and missile power and the founder of the deterrent power of our country," Hossein Salami, the deputy head of the Revolutionary Guards, said in a eulogy at the funeral, state broadcaster IRIB reported.
The Revolutionary Guards were set up in parallel to the regular Army after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and became a hugely powerful military and economic body.
A veteran of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, Moqaddam`s importance was underlined by the appearance of Khamenei at his funeral and a personal visit to his family by Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi to convey Ahmadinejad`s condolences.
While there was no indication of any kind of attack, the timing of the explosion -- amid rising tensions with Israel and the West over Iran`s nuclear program -- was likely to spark speculation about the incident.
A report published by the United Nations nuclear agency last week that contained what it called credible evidence pointing to military dimensions to Iran`s atomic activities fuelled demands in Washington and Europe for more sanctions on Tehran and increased talk of using military strikes to prevent it getting the bomb.
Khamenei responded by saying the Revolutionary Guards would "answer attacks with strong slaps and iron fists”.
Military experts say bombing Iran`s military sites would be more risky than similar actions Israel has made in the past in Iraq and Syria.
Iran has said several assassinations of nuclear scientists, and cyber attacks are covert operations by Israel and its allies to undermine the atomic work it says is entirely peaceful.