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Thousands defy Iran protest ban

Police fire tear gas as thousands stage a demonstration to commemorate the anniversary of bloody student unrest in 1999.

Iranian police fired tear-gas yesterday as thousands of demonstrators defied government warnings and staged a march to commemorate the anniversary of bloody student unrest in 1999, witnesses said. Protesters chanted "Death to the dictator" as they gathered in streets around Tehran University, epicentre of the violence 10 years ago. The witnesses said police arrested several people, and some protesters set roadside rubbish bins ablaze.

They said windows in a state-owned bank were smashed, and police seized the number plates of vehicles whose drivers sounded their horns in protest. Reinforcements were sent in after a volley of tear-gas failed to disperse the demonstrators who continued to grow in number, the witnesses said. Police then fired a second volley. The witnesses said members of the hardline Basij militia also reinforced police ranks.

Officers in riot gear deployed in force to try to quell any gathering as tensions remained high following the wave of protests over June's disputed re-election of the hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets. The authorities had warned of a harsh response to any commemoration of the 1999 violence in which at least one student was killed when hardline vigilantes stormed student dormitories, according to an official toll.

The warning came after the G8 world powers expressed "serious concern" over the June violence which left at least 20 people dead. Groups of students have held small commemorative gatherings in previous years, but Tehran governor Morteza Tamadon issued a blunt warning this year. "If some people make moves that are contrary to security initiatives under the influence of antirevolutionary networks, they will be trampled under the feet of our alert people," he told the official IRNA news agency.

Witnesses said leaflets had been distributed urging people to join Thursday's march which also turned into a support rally for opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi as several groups chanted "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein!" Iran has banned all gatherings amid a fierce crackdown since the protests over the official results of the June 12 presidential election, which Ahmadinejad's main challenger Mousavi called a "shameful fraud".

An Iranian employee of the British embassy and a French lecturer also remained in custody amid charges by Tehran of Western government interference in the post-election disturbances, the most serious in its 30-year history. The French ambassador to Tehran, Bernard Poletti, met lecturer Clotilde Reiss in Tehran's notorious Evin prison on Thursday and found her in "good physical condition," a diplomatic source said.

Iran is also still holding one of nine British embassy local employees it arrested late last month on suspicion of stoking the unrest in the Iranian capital. Global powers led by Washington suspect that Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at making atomic weapons but Tehran denies the charge, saying it is designed to generate energy. The G8 summit issued a declaration expressing concern over the post-election violence in Iran but said they were determined to find a peaceful resolution to the nuclear standoff.


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