NEW YORK: The United Nations voiced alarm Tuesday at reports dozens may have been killed in Iranian demonstrations, as the Islamic republic said it will unblock the internet only once calm has been restored.
Iran’s shock decision to impose petrol price hikes last Friday sparked the protests in which at least five people are confirmed to have been killed, three of them security personnel officials say were stabbed to death by “rioters”.
The UN rights office said it was alarmed by reports live ammunition was used against protesters and had caused a “significant number of deaths across the country”.
But its spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva that casualty details were hard to verify, in part because of the internet shutdown now in its third day.
“Iranian media and a number of other sources suggest dozens of people may have been killed and many people injured during protests in at least eight different provinces, with over 1,000 protesters arrested,” he said.
“We urge the Iranian authorities and security forces to avoid the use of force to disperse peaceful assemblies.”
Colville also called on protesters to demonstrate peacefully, “without resorting to physical violence or destruction of property”.
AFP journalists saw two petrol stations in Tehran gutted by fire and damage to infrastructure, including a police station.
They were prevented from filming as hundreds of riot police guarded squares with armoured vehicles and water cannon.
State television showed footage of rallies against “rioting” held in the northwestern city of Tariz and Shahr-e Qods, west of Tehran.
“Protesting is the people’s right, rioting is the work of enemies,” they chanted in Tabriz, according to Fars news agency.
– Knives and machetes –
When the demonstrations began on Friday, drivers stopped on major thoroughfares in Tehran to block traffic.
The protests soon turned violent and spread to more than 40 cities and towns, with banks, petrol stations and other public property set ablaze and shops looted.
The demonstrations erupted after it was announced the price of petrol would be raised by 50 per cent for the first 60 litres purchased over a month and 200 per cent for any extra fuel after that.
Iran’s economy has been battered since May last year when the United States unilaterally withdrew from a 2015 nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions.
Footage of masked young men clashing with security forces has been broadcast on state television, which rarely shows any signs of dissent.
In a video aired Monday night, a man can be seen firing what appears to be an assault rifle as others hurl stones apparently at security forces in the western city of Andimeshk.
In the latest bloodshed, assailants wielding knives and machetes ambushed and killed three security personnel west of Tehran, news agencies reported late Monday.
One was Morteza Ebrahimi, a commander of the Revolutionary Guards and father of a newborn child, according to Fars.
The others were Majid Sheikhi, 22, and Mostafa Rezaie, 33. Both served in the Basij militia, a volunteer force loyal to the establishment.
It is the worst violence since at least 25 lives were lost in protests over economic hardship that started in Iran’s second city Mashhad in December 2017 before spreading to other urban centres.
In response to the latest violence, the authorities say they have arrested hundreds of people.
– Internet ‘abuse’ –
Iran said on Tuesday the internet will only be unblocked when authorities are sure it will not be misused.
“The internet will come back gradually in some provinces where there are assurances the internet will not be abused,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei said.
The outage has stemmed the flow of videos shared on social media of protests or associated acts of violence.
Netblocks, a website that monitors global net shutdowns, said internet connectivity in Iran was at four per cent on Tuesday compared with normal levels.
“Sixty-five hours after #Iran implemented a near-total internet shutdown, some of the last remaining networks are now being cut,” it tweeted.
Iran announced the decision to impose petrol price hikes and rationing at midnight Thursday-Friday, saying it was aimed at helping the needy.
The plan, agreed by the president, parliament speaker and judiciary chief, comes at a sensitive time ahead of February parliamentary elections.
It has received the public support of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
President Hassan Rouhani has defended the price hike, saying the proceeds will go to 60 million Iranians.
The US has condemned Iran for using “lethal force”.
Iran hit back, slamming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he tweeted “the United States is with you” in response to the demonstrations.
Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Esmaili, warned the authorities would deal firmly with those who endanger security and carry out arson attacks.
He also called on citizens to inform on ‘seditionists’ who have committed acts of violence.
Officials say some of those arrested have confessed to being trained inside and outside Iran and having “received money” to set fire to public buildings.