Police Unleash Force On Rally in Tehran

After a hotly contested election pitting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against leading challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, the government declared Ahmadinejad the winner on June 13. Mousavi's supporters took to the streets to protest the results, and were met with harsh security crackdowns.
By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 21, 2009

TEHRAN, June 20 -- Fiery chaos broke out in downtown Tehran on Saturday as security forces blocked streets and used tear gas, water cannons and batons to break up a demonstration against the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Security forces were seen firing warning shots into the air, but there were also unconfirmed reports that several people were hit by gunfire.

President Obama, in his strongest comments to date on a political standoff that has paralyzed Iran for a week, urged the Iranian government "to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people."

Opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who asserts that he was cheated of victory in the June 12 election, said his supporters in the streets were "facing unrighteous liars."

Mousavi, in a statement posted on his campaign Web site, seemed to seek to avoid a direct confrontation with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, who warned protesters Friday of potential "bloodshed" if they continued mass street demonstrations. Mousavi said the way to restore calm on the streets was for the government to "not only allow for peaceful protests, but to encourage them."

Amid severe restrictions on news media reporting of the protests and conflicting accounts coming out of Tehran on Saturday, some reports suggested Mousavi was taking a more confrontational stance. The Reuters news agency reported him as saying he was "ready for martyrdom" and vowing to continue his protest movement despite Khamenei's warning. But with foreign journalists prohibited from leaving their offices to witness the protests, those comments could not be independently verified.

The struggle on the streets of Iran continued to reverberate around the world Saturday as tens of thousands of Iranian exiles from across Europe and beyond gathered in a Paris suburb to cheer on the demonstrators in Tehran and demand an end to Iran's religion-based political system.

"Regarding the presidential elections, I want to recall that we fully agree with annulling the results of the election masquerade, which we had called on people to boycott from the very beginning," Maryam Rajavi, leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which organized the event, said in a 90-minute speech interrupted by banner-waving supporters shouting, "Down with the dictators."

In Tehran, the street demonstrations were smaller than the massive protests that have jammed the capital for nearly a week. Khamenei's warning and a huge array of police on foot and motorcycles, as well as the pro-government Basij militia, clearly deterred some protesters. Nonetheless, thousands took to the streets chanting slogans such as "Death to the dictator" and "Allahu akbar" ("God is great") before police fired tear gas and water cannons to break up the gathering. News services estimated the crowd at about 3,000.

The number of casualties from running street clashes between security forces and protesters was not immediately clear. But one witness said he saw three bodies being loaded into vans.

Residents of the area described firefights after protesters grabbed weapons from security forces. They also said a mosque was set on fire by people they described as hooligans. Other witnesses said they saw people being shot.

The Associated Press reported that 50 to 60 protesters were seriously beaten by police and militiamen and taken to a hospital in central Tehran. Demonstrators could be seen dragging away comrades bloodied by baton strikes, the AP said.

Iran's official Press TV, an English-language version of state television, reported "sporadic clashes . . . between security forces and the protesters." The acting police chief, Brig. Gen. Ahmad-Reza Radan, said that the protests were illegal and that police would deal with them "firmly and with determination."

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