LONDON/GENEVA: As Amnesty International on Tuesday said over 100 demonstrators were believed to have been killed in Iran over the past five days when the security apparatus was ordered to stamp out protests against the recent fuel price hike, the United Nations voiced alarm over the reports of casualties and cautioned both sides against use of force.

“At least 106 protesters in 21 cities have been killed according to credible reports,” the London-based rights group said. It added that “the real death toll may be much higher, with some reports suggesting as many as 200 have been killed”.

Iran has officially confirmed at least five deaths, including three security personnel who had been allegedly stabbed to death by “rioters”.

The UN rights office said it was alarmed by reports live ammunition was being used against the protesters and had caused a “significant number of deaths across the country”. But its spokesman Rupert Colville cautioned that casualty details were hard to verify, in part because of a three-day-old internet shutdown.

“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 told reporters in Geneva.

Iranian authorities say some of those arrested have confessed to being trained inside and outside Iran and having “received money” to set fire to public buildings.

Mr Colville said: “We urge the Iranian authorities and security forces to avoid the use of force to disperse peaceful assemblies.” He 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.

State television showed footage of rallies against the “rioting” held in the northwestern city of Tariz and in Shahre Kord, central Iran. “Protesting is the people’s right, rioting is the work of enemies,” they chanted in Tabriz, according to Fars news agency.

Also, the state television broadcast footage of masked young men clashing with security forces. In a video aired on 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.

The Amnesty International urged the Iranian authorities to “lift the near-total block on internet access designed to restrict the flow of information about the crackdown to the outside world”. It said video footage showed that “snipers have also shot into crowds of people from rooftops and, in one case, a helicopter”.

Also on Monday, assailants killed three security personnel west of Tehran, according to local news agencies. One of those killed was identified as Morteza Ebrahimi, a Revolutionary Guards commander and father of a newborn child, while the others were members of a pro-government volunteer force.

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.

Meanwhile, government spokesman Ali Rabiei said, “The internet will come back gradually in some provinces where there are assurances the internet will not be abused”.

Netblocks, a website that monitors global net shutdowns, said internet connectivity in Iran was at four per cent on Tuesday compared with normal levels.

Iran announced the decision to impose petrol price hikes and rationing at midnight Thursday-Friday, saying it was aimed at helping the needy. President Hassan Rouhani has defended the price hike, saying the proceeds would go to 60 million needy Iranians. The decision also received the public support of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

While the US condemned Iran for using “lethal force” against the demonstrators, the Islamic regime hit back, slamming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after he tweeted “the United States is with you” in response to the demonstrations.

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.

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.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2019