By Sharafuddin Sharfyar
HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Iranian guards fired on a large group of Afghan migrants illegally crossing the border overnight, killing at least nine people, Afghan officials said on Saturday.
Hostility to the U.S. role in Afghanistan, regional ambitions and an economy choked by Western sanctions have contributed to a tough Iranian policy against Afghan migrants who flee war and seek work in their more prosperous neighbor.
The Iranian Interior Ministry in Tehran declined to comment. Iranian officials in Kabul could not be reached.
Around 300 Afghan men were trying to make their way from Afghanistan's western Farah province into Iranian territory when the guards opened fire, witnesses and officials said.
"Nine Afghans were killed, but the number may increase," said Abdul Samad Khan, district governor of Lash-e-Joveyn in Farah province near the Iranian border.
Farah police chief Abdul Hakim Angar put the death toll at 10 and eight wounded. Five wounded men lay in hospital beds in the provincial capital Farah, their feet and heads bound in bandages, TV footage showed.
"As soon as they touched Iranian soil the Iranian border police opened fire," said Farah governor's spokesman Abdul Rahman Zhwandai. Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry and its independent Human Rights Commission said they were looking into the reports of deaths.
As NATO and its foreign partners prepare to end their combat role in Afghanistan by the end of next year, attention is turning towards its neighbors and what role they could play in helping build the country's future.
The 2.4 million Afghans living in Iran - 1 million of whom are allowed to live there legally as refugees - have been a thorn in the side of Afghan-Iranian relations. Last year Tehran threatened to expel them if Kabul signed a strategic security pact with Washington. That deal was struck.
Hundreds of Afghans cross the 1,000-km (620-mile) border daily, paying sums of about $700 to smugglers to ferry them across. Iranian security forces rarely kill them.
Last year, Afghanistan said at least 23 Afghan migrants were killed by Iranian border police.
(Additional reporting by Khushal Zaland in FARAH, and Yeganeh Torbati in DUBAI, Writing by Mirwais Harooni, editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman)