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Posted at: Jan 1, 2018, 4:00 PM; last updated: Jan 1, 2018, 8:03 PM (IST)

New deadly unrest in Iran after Rouhani calls for calm

New deadly unrest in Iran after Rouhani calls for calm
Picture obtained from social media. Reuters

Tehran, January 1

At least 12 people have been killed in the ongoing protests in Iran, and armed protesters have tried to take over police stations and military bases, state TV reported today.

The protests began Thursday in Mashhad over economic issues and have since expanded to several cities. Hundreds of people have been arrested.

The state TV report said 10 were killed during clashes last night, without elaborating. Two demonstrators were killed during a protest in western Iran late Saturday.

"Some armed protesters tried to take over some police stations and military bases but faced serious resistance from security forces," state TV reported.

Earlier on Monday, the semi-official ILNA news agency quoted Hedayatollah Khademi, a representative for the town of Izeh, as saying two people died there last night.

He said the cause of death wasn't immediately known. Many in Izeh, some 455 km southwest of Tehran, have hunting rifles in their homes.

Iran on Sunday blocked access to Instagram and the popular messaging app Telegram used by activists to organise.

President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged the public's anger over the Islamic Republic's flagging economy, though he and others warned that the government wouldn't hesitate to crack down on those it considers lawbreakers.

"People of Izeh, like some other cities, held a protest against economic problems and unfortunately it led to the killing of two people and injuries to some others," Hedayatollah Khademi, the local MP, told the ILNA news agency, adding it was unclear who had fired the shots.

The state broadcaster said two others died in the small western town of Dorud when they were hit by a fire engine stolen by protesters, and ILNA reported a school for clergy and government buildings were torched in the northwestern town of Takestan.

Rouhani finally broke his silence last night about the protests that mark the biggest test for the regime since mass demonstrations in 2009.

"The people are absolutely free in expressing their criticisms and even protests," Rouhani said in a message on the state broadcaster. "But criticism is different to violence and destroying public property."

Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse a small protest in Tehran's Enghelab Square on Sunday evening, according to unverified social media videos.

There were also reports of protests in the cities of Kermanshah, Khorramabad, Shahinshahr and Toyserkan in the west, and Zanjan in north Iran.

More than 400 people have been arrested in the four days of protest across Iran.

Verifying reports remained challenging due to travel restrictions and sporadic blocks on mobile internet and popular social media sites, including Telegram and Instagram.

The protests began as demonstrations against economic conditions in second city Mashhad on Thursday but quickly turned against the Islamic regime as a whole, with thousands marching in towns across Iran to chants of "Death to the dictator".

Rouhani sought a conciliatory tone, saying that government bodies "should provide space for legal criticism and protest" and calling for greater transparency and a more balanced media.

US President Donald Trump, a fierce critic of Tehran, said the "big protests" showed people "were getting wise as to how their money and wealth is being stolen and squandered on terrorism".

He accused Iran of "numerous violations of human rights", adding it "has now closed down the internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!" Rouhani dismissed Trump's comments.

"This man who today in America wants to sympathise with our people has forgotten that a few months ago he called the nation of Iran terrorist."

After initial silence, state media began showing some footage of the demonstrations on Sunday, focusing on young men attacking banks and vehicles, an attack on a town hall in Tehran, and images of a man burning the Iranian flag.

"Those who damage public property, disrupt order and break the law must be responsible for their behaviour and pay the price," Interior Minister Abdolrahman Rahmani Fazli said on Sunday.

There have been reminders of the continued support for the regime among conservative sections of society, with pro-regime students staging sizeable counterdemonstrations at the University of Tehran over the weekend.

Rouhani came to power in 2013 promising to mend the economy and ease social tensions, but high living costs and a 12 per cent unemployment rate have left many feeling that progress is too slow.

"Rouhani has run an austerity budget since 2013 with the idea that it's a tough but necessary pill to swallow to manage inflation and currency problems and try to improve Iran's attractiveness for investment," said Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of the Europe-Iran Forum.

"But choosing years of austerity immediately after a very tough period of sanctions is bound to test people's patience," he told AFP.

Police have so far taken a relatively soft approach to the unrest.

The authorities have blamed external forces for fomenting violence, saying the majority of social media reports were emanating from regional rival Saudi Arabia or exile groups based in Europe.

Since the ruthless repression of the 2009 protests against a disputed presidential election that gave hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term, many middle-class Iranians have abandoned hope of securing change from the streets.

But low-level strikes and demonstrations have continued, with groups such as bus drivers, teachers and factory workers regularly protesting against unpaid wages and poor conditions. AP/AFP

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