‘Clerics get lost!’: Iran protests rage after plane disaster

Protesters denouncing Iran’s clerical rulers took to the streets and riot police deployed to face them on Monday, in a third day of demonstrations after authorities acknowledged mistakenly shooting down a passenger plane.

Iran’s president called last week’s downing of the Ukrainian plane a “disastrous mistake” on Saturday, saying its air defenses were fired in error while on alert after it carried out missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq.

Iranian public anger, rumbling for days after Tehran had repeatedly denied it was to blame for the plane crash, erupted into protests when the military admitted its role.

A full picture of protests inside Iran is difficult to obtain because of restrictions on independent media. But videos uploaded to the internet showed scores, possibly hundreds, of protesters on Monday at sites in Tehran and Isfahan, a major city south of the capital.

Video showed students chanting slogans including “Clerics get lost!” outside universities in Isfahan and in Tehran, with riot police taking positions on the streets.

Images from the previous two days of protests showed wounded people being carried and pools of blood on the ground. Gunshots could be heard, although the police have denied opening fire.

The demonstrations are the latest twist in one of the most serious increases in tension between Washington and Tehran since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who raised the stakes earlier this month by ordering a drone strike that killed Iran’s most powerful military commander, tweeted to Iran’s leaders: “don’t kill your protesters.”

Iran’s government spokesman dismissed Trump’s comments, saying Iranians were suffering because of his actions and they would remember he had ordered the killing of General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan 3.

POSSIBLE LEGAL ACTION

Five nations whose citizens died in the crash, which killed all 176 people aboard, will meet in London on Thursday to discuss possible legal action, Ukraine’s foreign minister told Reuters.

The five include Canada, which had at least 57 passport holders on the flight, many of them Iranian-Canadian students and academics heading home after holiday visits.

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said on Monday that Iran had signaled the agency could play an active role in the investigation and invited it to analyze the plane’s black boxes of cockpit voice and data recorders. Two Canadian investigators were traveling to Tehran.

The TSB’s director of investigations, Natacha Van Themsche, said one of the main questions was why Iran did not shut down the airspace around Tehran, given the tensions created by Iran’s missile attack on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops earlier on the day of the tragedy. Iran said it attacked the bases in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani.

A top Iranian commander said he had told the authorities on the day of the crash that the plane had been shot down, raising questions about why Iran had initially denied it.

‘DON’T BEAT THEM’

The protests come at a precarious time for the authorities in Iran and the proxy forces they support to wield influence across the Middle East. Sanctions imposed by Trump have hammered the Iranian economy.

Videos posted late on Sunday recorded the gunfire around protests in Tehran’s Azadi Square. Wounded were being carried and men who seemed to be security personnel ran as they gripped rifles. Riot police hit protesters with batons as people shouted “Don’t beat them!”

“Death to the dictator,” other footage showed protesters shouting, directing their fury directly at Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader since 1989.

Reuters could not immediately verify the footage. State-affiliated media has reported the protests in Tehran and other cities but without all the details from the uploaded videos.

“At protests, police absolutely did not shoot because the capital’s police officers have been given orders to show restraint,” Tehran police chief Hossein Rahimi said in a statement on state media.

Accusations of lethal force against the protesters should be fully investigated, a spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday.

Iran’s authorities killed hundreds of protesters in November in what appears to have been the bloodiest crackdown on anti-government unrest since 1979. In Iraq and Lebanon, governments backed by pro-Iran armed groups have also faced mass protests.

The deaths of the plane passengers, including many Iranians, adds trauma to a nation still raw from the deaths in November.

Soleimani’s killing led to days of mourning and public shows of solidarity with the authorities, but even that turned bloody, with at least 56 people trampled to death at his funeral.

Trump precipitated growing tensions with Iran in May 2018 by pulling out of a deal under which sanctions were eased in return for Iran curbing its nuclear program. Trump says he wants a more stringent pact, while Iran says it will not negotiate as long as U.S. sanctions are in place.

In December, rockets fired at U.S. bases in Iraq killed a U.S. contractor. Washington blamed pro-Iran militia and launched air strikes that killed at least 25 fighters. After the militia surrounded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad for two days, Trump ordered the strike on General Soleimani.

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