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200 arrested in Iran ethnic unrest

April 19, 2005


TEHRAN, April 18: Iran said on Monday that about 200 people were arrested in ethnic unrest in its southwest in recent days and closed the offices of the Arab language Al Jazeera television channel, accusing it of stirring up trouble. At least one person died after Arab-Iranians went on the rampage in the city of Ahvaz, near the border with Iraq, on Friday and Saturday, smashing and setting fire to police cars, banks and government buildings and clashing with police.

Government officials said the violence in Iran’s oil-producing heartland was sparked by a forged letter, supposedly written by a senior government official, discussing the idea of relocating ethnic Arabs from the area.

“Many of those arrested are young, innocent people. The real criminals are those who provoked them,” the official IRNA news agency quoted Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi as saying.

“We have arrested many of those behind the scenes and it became evident that they have ties to anti-government (television) channels,” he said.

The Tehran bureau of Qatar-based Al Jazeera television was later closed, said a senior Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry official in charge of supervising the foreign press.

“Until further investigation about the role of this channel in the recent protests in Ahvaz, its offices will be closed,” Mohammad Hussein Khoshvaght told Reuters. The channel was closed “for its coverage of these demonstrations which possibly provoked bandits in south-western Iran”.

Broadcast media in Iran are in the hands of the state, but many Iranians tune in to foreign channels via illegal satellite dishes.

Some Iranian lawmakers also called for the expulsion from Iran of Al Jazeera. One exile opposition group campaigning for the region’s independence from non-Arab Iran, the London-based Ahvaz Arab People Democratic-Popular Front, said the violence was far worse than official accounts and put the death toll much higher.

But officials said peace and order had been restored to the area by Sunday and there were no other reports of renewed violence.—Reuters