Sunday, June 21, 2009

Iran raises death toll in clashes to at least 19

The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — State media reported Sunday at least 10 more deaths in post-election unrest and said authorities have arrested the daughter and four other relatives of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran's most powerful men.

The reports brought the official death toll for a week of unrest to at least 19. State television inside Iran said 10 were killed and 100 injured in clashes Saturday between demonstrators contesting the result of the June 12 election and black-clad police wielding truncheons, tear gas and water cannons.

However English-language Press TV, which is broadcast only outside the country, put the toll at 13 and labeled those who died "terrorists." There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy.

Amnesty International cautioned that it was "perilously hard" to verify the casualty tolls.

"The climate of fear has cast a shadow over the whole situation," Amnesty's chief Iran researcher, Drewery Dyke, told The Associated Press. "In the 10 years I've been following this country, I've never felt more at sea than I do now. It's just cut off."

On Sunday, the streets of Tehran were eerily quiet.

Press TV reported Rafsanjani's eldest daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, and four other family members were arrested late Saturday. It did not identify the other four. Last week, state television showed images of Hashemi speaking to hundreds of Mousavi supporters.

Rafsanjani, 75, has made no secret of his distaste for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose re-election victory in a June 12 vote was disputed by opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Ahmadinejad has accused Rafsanjani and his family of corruption.

Rafsanjani now heads two very powerful groups. The most important one is the Assembly of Experts, made up of senior clerics who can elect and dismiss the supreme leader. The second is the Expediency Council, a body that arbitrates disputes between parliament and the unelected Guardian Council, which can block legislation.

Also Sunday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki held a news conference where he rebuked Britain, France and Germany for raising questions about reports of voting irregularities in hardline Ahmadinejad's re-election — a proclaimed victory which has touched off Iran's most serious internal conflict since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Thousands of supporters of Mousavi, who claims he won the election, squared off Saturday against security forces in a dramatic show of defiance of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Underscoring how the protesters have become emboldened despite the regime's repeated and ominous warnings, witnesses said some shouted "Death to Khamenei!" at Saturday's demonstrations — another sign of once unthinkable challenges to the virtually limitless authority of the country's most powerful figure.

Sunday's state media reports also said rioters set two gas stations on fire and attacked a military post in clashes Saturday. They quoted the deputy police chief claiming officers did not use live ammunition to dispel the crowds.

Iran has also acknowledged the deaths of seven protesters in clashes on Monday.

On Saturday, state media also reported a suicide bombing at the shrine of the Islamic Revolution leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini killed at least two people and wounded eight. Another state channel broadcast images of broken glass, but no other damage or casualties, and showed a witness saying three people had been wounded. But there was no independent verification of the shrine attack or the deaths.

State TV quoted an unidentified witness as saying a man wearing an explosives belt blew himself up at the mausoleum's main gate.

Iran has imposed strict controls on foreign media covering the unrest, saying correspondents cannot go out into the streets to report.

Mottaki criticized Britain, France and Germany for raising questions about Ahmadinejad's victory.

Mottaki accused France of taking "treacherous and unjust approaches." But he saved his most pointed criticism for Britain, raising a litany of historical grievances and accusing the country of flying intelligence agents into Iran before the election to interfere with the vote. The election, he insisted, was a "very transparent competition."

In Washington on Saturday, President Barack Obama urged Iranian authorities to halt "all violent and unjust actions against its own people." He said the United States "stands by all who seek to exercise" the universal rights to assembly and free speech.

Obama has offered to open talks with Iran to ease a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze, but the upheaval could complicate any attempts at outreach.

The New-York based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said Sunday that scores of injured protesters who had sought medical treatment after Saturday's clashes were arrested by security forces at hospitals in the capital.

It said doctors had been ordered to report protest-related injuries to the authorities, and that some seriously injured protesters had sought refuge at foreign embassies in a bid to evade arrest.

"The arrest of citizens seeking care for wounds suffered at the hands of security forces when they attempted to exercise rights guaranteed under their own constitution and international law is deplorable," said Hadi Ghaemi, spokesman for the campaign, denouncing the alleged arrests as "a sign of profound disrespect by the state for the well-being of its own people."

"The government of Iran should be ashamed of itself. Right now, in front of the whole world, it is showing its violent actions," he said.

Saturday's unrest came a day after Khamenei sternly warned Mousavi and his backers to all off demonstrations or risk being held responsible for "bloodshed, violence and rioting." Delivering a sermon at Friday prayers attended by tens of thousands, Khamenei sided firmly with Ahmadinejad, calling the result "an absolute victory" that reflected popular will and ordering opposition leaders to end their street protests.

Mousavi did not directly reply to the ultimatum.

A police commander sharpened the message Saturday. Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghadam said more than a week of unrest and marches had become "exhausting, bothersome and intolerable." He threatened a more "serious confrontation" if protesters return.

Late Saturday, Ahmadinejad thanked Khamenei for his support, telling the supreme leader: "Without a doubt, you strongly raised the flag of dignity and awareness of the Iranian nation against the arrogant."

The government has blocked Web sites such as BBC Farsi, Facebook, Twitter and several pro-Mousavi sites used by Iranians to tell the world about protests and violence. Text messaging has not been working in Iran since last week, and cell phone service in Tehran is frequently down.

But that won't stifle the opposition networks, said Sami Al Faraj, president of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies.

"They can resort to whispering ... they can do it the old-fashioned way," he said.

Karimi reported from Tehran and Kole from Cairo. Associated Press Writers Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran, Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Sebastian Abbot in Cairo contributed to this report.

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