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Fierce clashes in Tehran Saturday between police, protesters

Eyewitnesses say thousands of police and plainclothes militia members filled the streets to prevent rallies.

By Ali Akbar DareiniAssociated Press Writer / June 20, 2009



Tehran

TEHRAN, IRAN - Police beat protesters and fired tear gas and water cannons at thousands who rallied Saturday in open defiance of Iran’s clerical government, sharply escalating the most serious internal conflict since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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Witnesses described fierce clashes after some 3,000 protesters, many wearing black, chanted “Death to the dictator!” and “Death to dictatorship!” near Revolution Square in downtown Tehran. Police fired tear gas, water cannons and guns but it was not clear if they were firing live ammunition.

Some protesters appeared to be fighting back, setting fire to militia members’ motorcycles, witnesses said. There were no immediate confirmed reports of fatalities and the head of Iran’s police said his men had been ordered to act with restraint.

“We acted with leniency but I think from today on, we should resume law and confront more seriously,” General Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghadam said on state television. “The events have become exhausting, bothersome and intolerable. I want them to take the police cautions seriously because we will definitely show a serious confrontation against those who violate rules.”

Police and militia were blocking protesters from gathering on the main thoroughfare running east from Revolution Square to Freedom Square, the witnesses said.

A massive rally in Freedom Square Monday set off three consecutive days of protests demanding the government cancel and rerun June 12 elections that ended with a declaration of overwhelming victory for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi says he won and Ahmadinejad stole the election through widespread fraud.

Mousavi has not been seen since a rally Thursday, but late Saturday he repeated his demand for the election to be annulled.

In a letter to Iran’s Guardian Council, which investigates voting fraud allegations, Mousavi listed violations that he says are proof that the June 12 vote should be annulled. He said some ballot boxes had been sealed before voting began, thousands of his representatives had been expelled from polling stations and some mobile polling stations had ballot boxes filled with fake ballots.

“The Iranian nation will not believe this unjust and illegal” act, Mousavi said in the letter published on one of his official Web sites. But Mousavi did not say whether he endorsed ongoing street protests or the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who sternly warned opposition leaders to end rallies or be held responsible for “the bloodshed, the violence and rioting” to come.

Khamenei’s statement during Friday prayers effectively closed the door to Mousavi’s demand for a new election.

As reports of street clashes became public, Iran’s English-language state TV said that a suicide bombing at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini about 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of central Tehran had killed one person and wounded eight. The report could not be independently confirmed due to government restrictions on independent reporting.

The channel also confirmed that police had used batons and other non-lethal weapons against what it called unauthorized demonstrations.

Amateur video showed dozens of Iranians running down a street after police fired tear gas at them. Shouts of “Allahu Akbar!” -- “God is Great” -- could be heard on the video, which could not be independently verified.

Helicopters hovered, ambulances raced through the streets and black smoke rose over the city. The witnesses told The Associated Press that between 50 and 60 protesters were hospitalized after beatings by police and pro-government militia. People could be seen dragging away comrades bloodied by baton strikes.Police clashed with protesters around Tehran immediately after the presidential election. Gunfire from a militia compound left at least seven dead, but further force had remained in check until Saturday.

Eyewitnesses said thousands of police and plainclothes militia members filled the streets to prevent rallies. Fire trucks took up positions in Revolution Square and riot police surrounded Tehran University, the site of recent clashes between protesters and security forces, one witness said.

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