By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI (Reuters) -Iranians kept up anti-government protests on Wednesday despite an increasingly deadly state crackdown, social media reports showed, as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismissed the demonstrations as “scattered riots” planned by Iran’s enemies.
Protests ignited by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Iran’s morality police on Sept. 16 have turned into one of the boldest challenges to the clerical leadership since the 1979 revolution.
A crowd of at least 100 people blocked a road in central Tehran, shouting “by cannon, tank or firecracker, mullahs must get lost”, one video showed. Another video showed dozens of riot police deployed in a Tehran street where a fire was burning.
Tear gas was fired during a protest outside the lawyers association in Tehran, where demonstrators who appeared to number in the dozens had chanted “women, life, freedom”, videos posted on social media showed.
Reuters could not independently verify the videos.
In the northwestern city of Bukan, security forces fired on protesters, wounding 11 people, according to human rights group Hengaw which also reported shooting in the city of Kermanshah.
In Sanandaj, the main city in Amini’s province of Kurdistan, a protester said shots were also fired. “Several demonstrators got injured. Riot police are everywhere,” they told Reuters.
Iran’s police chief Hossein Ashtari told state television that individuals linked to opposition groups abroad disguised themselves as police and fired into the crowds. He did not specify when or where, but said some of them had been arrested.
While observers do not believe the protests are close to toppling the government – authorities withstood six months of protests in 2009 over a disputed election – the nearly four weeks of unrest have underlined pent-up frustrations over freedoms and rights.
Amini’s death has struck a nerve, bringing a broad sweep of Iranians onto the streets, with protesters expressing anger at the heavy handedness of morality police and saying the victim could have been anyone’s mother, sister or daughter.
The Norway-based Iran Human Rights organisation said the civilian death toll during the unrest had increased to at least 201, including 23 minors. Its previous report, on Oct. 8, put the death toll at 185 people.
The authorities have said around 20 members of the security forces have been killed. Iran has accused its enemies, including the United States, of fomenting the unrest.
‘STAND UP TO ENEMIES’
The unrest comes at a time of hardship for ordinary people in Iran, where costly interventions in wars such as Syria have fuelled criticism in recent years. The economy continues to suffer from bad management and from Western sanctions tightened over Iran’s nuclear programme, nudging Tehran ever closer to Russia and China.
Khamenei, a focus of protesters’ anger, said the protests were designed by Iran’s enemies, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported. “These scattered riots are the passive and clumsy design of the enemy against the great and innovative developments and movements of the Iranian nation,” he said.
“The cure against enemies is to stand up to them,” he said.
In Iran’s capital, a protester who asked not to be identified said dozens of riot police had arrested people leaving Tehran University.
“They are beating and pushing people,” the protester said.
The protests have been especially intense in the northwest, where many of Iran’s over 10 million Kurds live and where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have a track record of putting down unrest.
Hengaw reported strikes in Kurdish regions including Amini’s hometown of Saqez and Bukan, sharing videos which appeared to show shops with their shutters down in both towns.
In Rasht, the capital of Gilan province in northern Iran, a dozen protesters were seen shouting in a video posted on social media, “from Kurdistan to Gilan, I sacrifice my life for Iran,” echoing chants that have stressed national unity. Reuters could not verify the video.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Writing by Tom Perry and Dominic Evans; Editing by William Maclean, Bernadette Baum and Rosalba O’Brien)