TEHRAN (AFP) – Seven people were killed when a mass protest against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection turned violent, state media said on Tuesday, as the tense nation braced for more rival rallies.
Tyres, dustbins and motorbikes were set ablaze by protestors as hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets on Monday in a public outpouring of anger reminiscent of the days of the Islamic revolution in 1979.
The stage was being set for possible further confrontations on Tuesday as both Ahmadinejad’s camp and supporters of his defeated rival Mir Hossein Mousavi were planning rival marches on a Tehran square just two hours apart.
State radio said at least seven people were killed when “thugs” attacked and vandalised government buildings at the end of Monday’s opposition rally, which had been banned by the authorities as an illegal gathering.
“A military post was attacked with the intention of looting its weapons. Unfortunately, seven of our citizens were killed and a number of them injured,” it said.
The mounting protests against Ahmadinejad’s re-election in a vote Mousavi has branded a rigged “charade” have triggered the worst unrest in Tehran in a decade and exposed deep divisions after 30 years of Islamic rule.
Iran is facing an international backlash over its action against the opposition protestors and the election itself, which returned the combative Ahmadinejad to another four years in power.
The authorities have warned that they would nip any “velvet revolution” in the bud and police said on Sunday they had rounded up 170 people over the protests, including a number of reformist leaders.
Another two prominent reformists, close aides of Ahmadinejad’s predecessor Mohammad Khatami, were arrested from their homes on Tuesday, their aides said.
US President Barack Obama, who has called for dialogue with the Islamic republic after three decades of hostility, said he was “deeply troubled” by the violence and would stick to tough diplomacy with Iran over its nuclear drive.
In one incident late Monday, one man was reportedly shot in the head outside a local base of the Basij Islamic volunteer militia, which was set on fire.
Pictures showed armed men, wearing helmets and in civilian clothes, pointing guns at the crowds from the rooftop of the base.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has order a probe into the vote-rigging allegations laid by former wartime premier Mousavi, who had declared himself the victor on polling day Friday.
The violence flared after Mousavi appeared in public for the first time since the election that has highlighted deep divisions in Iran as it grapples with a struggling economy and a standoff with the West over its nuclear work.
“God willing, we will take back our rights,” Mousavi shouted from the roof of a car amid a sea of hundreds of thousand of Iranians, young and old, who packed into central Tehran despite the ban.
One policeman said between 1.5 and two million demonstrators, some wearing the green of Mousavi’s campaign colour, had swarmed into central Tehran.
On Tuesday, Mousavi appealed for his supporters to remain calm at a planned rally at Vali Asr square at 1230 GMT, just two hours after a pro-Ahmadinejad demonstration is due to be held at the same place.
Ahmadinejad himself was in Russia — a key ally which is helping Iran build a nuclear power plant — for a security summit. Moscow has described the election as an “internal” affair.
In his first public comments since the election, Obama called on Iranian leaders to respect free speech and democracy, saying “it is up to Iranians to make a decision about who Iran’s leaders will be.”
“I think it’s important that moving forward, whatever investigations take place are done in a way that is not resulting in bloodshed and is not resulting in people being stifled in expressing their views,” he said.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon has called for the will of the Iranian people to be “fully respected.”
Parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a conservative rival to Ahmadinejad, blamed the interior minister for attacks on civilians and unversity students.
European governments also complained about the tactics used against protesters and added their voices to US doubt over the election outcome, with the EU calling on Tehran to launch a probe.
“The regime must address the serious questions which have been asked about the conduct of the Iranian elections,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the action of the security forces as “completely unacceptable,” while French President Nicolas Sarkozy he wanted “full light” to be shed on the vote.
The election outcome dented Western hopes of a change in domestic and foreign policy of the oil-rich OPEC member state, with analysts warning that the country could find itself further isolated from the outside world.
Iran’s election supervisory body the Guardians Council is expected to make a decision in 10 days after Khamenei told it “to precisely examine” Mousavi’s complaints.
Monday’s demonstration came a day after Ahmadinejad himself addressed a vast victory rally in Tehran to defend the results, saying the people of Iran had triumphed against the “world arrogance” (the West).
The Iranian authorities have also cracked down on local and foreign media, with Mousavi’s own newspaper reportedly suspended and international outlets reporting the arrest and harassment of their journalists.
Some telephone, texting and Internet services have also been disrupted, and protestors have been turning to Twitter to spread word about the dramatic events.