Several thousand protesters – some chanting “Where is my vote?” – clashed with riot police in Tehran on Sunday as Iran detained local employees of the British Embassy, escalating the regime’s standoff with the West and earning it a stinging rebuke from the European Union.
Witnesses said riot police used tear gas and clubs to break up a crowd of up to 3,000 protesters who had gathered near north Tehran’s Ghoba Mosque in the country’s first major post-election unrest in four days.
Some described scenes of brutality, telling the Associated Press that some protesters suffered broken bones and alleging that police beat an elderly woman, prompting a screaming match with young demonstrators who then fought back.
The reports could not be independently verified because of tight restrictions imposed on journalists in Iran.
North Tehran is a base of support for opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has alleged massive fraud in Iran’s disputed June 12 presidential election and insists he – not President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – is the rightful winner.
Sunday’s clashes erupted at a rally that had been planned to coincide with a memorial held each year for Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, who came to be considered a martyr in the Islamic Republic after he was killed in a major anti-regime bombing in 1981.
Witnesses who spoke with the AP said they did not spot Mousavi at the rally. But one of his close assistants addressed the crowd through a loudspeaker and other opposition figures also appeared, including reformist presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi.
Later, after the situation calmed, police set up patrols and cordons.
Iranian authorities say 17 protesters and eight members of the volunteer Basij militia have been killed in two weeks of unrest, and that hundreds of people have been arrested.
The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights said its information suggests at least 2,000 arrests have been made – “not just (people) arrested and later released, but who are locked up in prison,” the group’s vice president, Abdol Karim Lahidji, told the AP.
He said his information came from members of human rights groups in Iran and other contacts inside the country.
Iran’s diplomatic battles also intensified Sunday after authorities detained several local employees of the British Embassy in Tehran – a move that Britain’s foreign secretary called “harassment and intimidation.” The EU condemned the arrests.
Iranian media said eight local embassy staff were detained for alleged roles in post-election protests, but gave no further details. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said “about nine” employees were detained Saturday and that four had been released.
Iran has accused the West of stoking unrest, singling out Britain and the U.S. for alleged meddling and for expressing concern about the ferocity of the regime’s crackdown. Last week, Iran expelled two British diplomats, and Britain responded in kind. Iran has said it’s considering downgrading diplomatic ties with Britain. On Sunday, Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseini Ejehi accused some British embassy staff of mingling with protest crowds to encourage unrest.