TEHRAN (AFP) – Riot police on Monday fired tear gas and shot paintballs at protesters staging anti-government demonstrations in Tehran under the pretext of rallies supporting Arab uprisings, websites and witnesses said.
Police moved in when crowds of opposition supporters who had gathered at Tehran’s prominent Azadi (Freedom) Square began chanting “Death to Dictator!” — a slogan used by protesters against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
The demonstrations, staged despite a ban on rallies, marked the first anti-government protests in Tehran since February 11, 2010, when activists took to the streets during celebrations marking the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution.
Opposition website Rahesabz.net said clashes were also reported Monday near Tehran University and on the prominent road connecting Azadi Square with Enghelab Square.
It said tear gas was fired by police as protesters chanted slogans “Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein” a slogan used by protesters in 2009 in support of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.
“Police also barged into buses stuck in traffic on the road (between Azadi Square and Enghelab Square) and beat women passengers to spread fear among passengers,” Mousavi’s website Kaleme.com reported.
It added that protesters using roadside telephone booths and taking films on mobiles were also subject to police assaults.
Websites and witnesses said thousands of opposition supporters had taken to the streets of the capital in support of Arab revolts despite a heavy police deployment. Some set fire to rubbish bins while chanting slogans in apparent reference to Ahmadinejad.
Iranian authorities had earlier surrounded the house of Mousavi to prevent him from attending the rally which regime-backers said was a ploy to stage protests similar to those which shook the foundations of the Islamic republic in 2009.
While Iran has backed the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the interior ministry in Tehran banned the Monday rally planned by Mousavi and fellow opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi.
Witnesses and websites said the opposition supporters had initially walked in scattered crowds silently to Azadi Square from several parts of the capital as policemen kept a sharp watch.
Riot police on motorbikes armed with shotguns, tear gas, batons, paintball guns and fire extinguishers were deployed in key squares in the capital to prevent the gatherings.
One witness, describing the initial pattern of the demonstration, said some demonstrators chanted “Allahu Akbar!” (God is greatest) as they gathered around alleys near Azadi Square.
Another witness described how one group of demonstrators had walked silently from Imam Hussein Square to Enghelab Square. “They are being silent and trying to keep a low profile,” the witness said.
“Some policemen are chasing protesters in order to disperse them,” another witness said, adding around 1,000 anti-riot policemen were also deployed in and around Imam Hussein Square.
More police and Basij militiamen took up positions in Haft-e Tir square, a regular site for intense anti-government protests in 2009.
The foreign media has been banned by authorities from on-the-spot reporting of the gatherings.
Police meanwhile stopped Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard from attending the rally as they tried to step out of their house at around 2:45 pm (1115 GMT), Kaleme.com reported.
Kaleme.com said earlier that police had “blocked access” to Mousavi’s house since early Monday. “There is no possibility of coming and going,” it said.
The report said all telephone lines at the house, including the mobile phone connections of Mousavi and his wife, have been severed.
Karroubi has been under de facto house arrest, according to his website Sahamnews.org.
The two leaders and their supporters remain steadfast in rejecting Ahmadinejad’s presidency, saying the hardliner was re-elected due to massive vote rigging in June 2009.
Their protests in the immediate aftermath of the election brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of Tehran and other cities, shaking the pillars of the Islamic regime and dividing the nation’s elite clergy.
Iranian authorities crushed those demonstrations during which scores of people were killed and wounded, and thousands arrested in a crackdown by security forces and members of the feared Basij militia.
Iranian officials, including commanders from the elite military force, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Basij militia had warned the opposition against staging Monday’s rally.