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Clashes continue throughout Tehran

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 14, 2003

TEHRAN, Iran - Hundreds of procleric militants and security forces clashed with Iranians throughout the capital late Friday, firing machine guns in the air and using tear gas and batons to put down any public opposition to the country's hardline regime.

The clashes were the most intense and widespread of four consecutive nights of clashes in Tehran, which were sparked by university students and snowballed into broader displays of opposition to Iran's clerical establishment.

Unlike previous nights, no protests against supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei were seen, making it unclear what sparked Friday night's clashes involving hundreds of militants - some in groups of two to four, others on motorcycles - who beat pedestrians with batons, brandished knives or hurled rocks at crowds and homes.

Protesters had been calling for an end to the country's hardline establishment and for supreme leader Khamenei's death. Criticism of Khamenei is usually punished by imprisonment, and public calls for his death had been unheard of until this week.

Khamenei's hardline supporters - who control key government institutions in Iran - are locked in a power struggle with popularly elected President Mohammad Khatami, who came to power aiming to reform Iran's conservative political system.

During the past few nights, the largest crowds of protesters and onlookers were concentrated around the Tehran University compound in the capital's Amirabad district, the scene of many of the clashes between students and security forces.

Hundreds of police had locked down the area earlier in the day, lining streets to prevent people from gathering and stopping suspect cars for spot searches.

Late Friday night, packs of militants - often backed by security forces - rushed onlookers, beating them with batons and their fists in order to break up the crowds. Some of the militants were seen riding motorcycles and chasing pedestrians.

Witnesses said security officers fired machine guns in the air and tear gas at crowds to disperse hundreds of onlookers in a residential area about one mile from the dormitory.

The militants - often referred to as vigilantes - pledge loyalty to Khamenei and his hardline clerics and act voluntarily to break up protests without government approval.

Although the protesters criticize the clerics, public support for Khatami also appears to be falling because of his government's inability to implement promised reforms.

During a Friday prayer sermon at Tehran University, former president Hashemi Rafsanjani - a key Khamenei supporter - urged Iran's youth not to fall into what he described as a U.S. trap by denouncing the country's political leadership.

"I advise the youth, especially students . . . that they should be careful not to fall into a trap dug out by the Americans," Rafsanjani told worshipers.

Rafsanjani said it was Iran's policy to "act resolutely" to prevent demonstrations from getting out of hand but "not to be harsh on protesters."

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