Khatami appeals for end to uprising

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS OF Iranian students demanding reform defied a government ban on protests to do battle with police yesterday on the very streets on which demonstrators fought the Shah's security forces 20 years ago in what was to become the Islamic Revolution.

In violent scenes not witnessed in Iran since the 1979 overthrow of the Shah, police fired their guns into the air and showered tear gas on hundreds of young men who tried to storm the heavy iron gates of the Iranian interior ministry as the demonstrations widened beyond Tehran University, the scene of six days of unrest.

By last night the security forces and armed Islamic vigilantes had taken back control of most of central Tehran and President Mohammad Khatami went on television to warn that the riots were threatening Iran's national security and his government's reform programme. Under immense pressure to accelerate promised reforms in the face of consistent challenges from powerful conservative clerical opponents President Khatami accused those "with evil aims" of whipping up what had started as peaceful student protests. "I am sure these people have evil aims. They intend to foster violence in society and we shall stand in their way.... We take the security of our country and our citizens very seriously."

After a day of clashes between the security forces and protesters, there was little sign of opposition as members of the paramilitary Basij forces and Islamic vigilantes triumphantly patrolled deserted streets with guns drawn.

"We donate to the leader the blood in our veins," they chanted in reference to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is identified with Iran's political hardliners. "Praise on you Hezbollah" they chanted.

Throughout the day, central Tehran echoed to the sounds of ambulance sirens, car horns, screaming protesters and policemen. The stench of tear gas and burning tyres filled the air and the tree-lined streets were littered with sticks, broken glass and rubbish. Shops in Tehran's sprawling bazaar shut as the unrest approached the capital's main commercial district. Crowds smashed windows, set fire to a bank and tried to attack the offices of the hardline Kayhan newspaper, hated by many moderates for its virulent diatribes against them, but were pushed back by police.

It seems extraordinary now that six days of conflict should have been set off by protests at the closure of a pro-Khatami newspaper and a subsequent police raid on the university. But the violence comes after months of sometimes ferocious struggle between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the unelected Supreme Leader - a theological post created by Ayatollah Khomeini - and the President who won an overwhelming democratic election more than two years ago. The murder of intellectuals, torture and arbitrary arrest by conservative elements in Tehran have enraged many of the country's youth who voted for Khatami's "civil society" in 1997.

Last night the United States called on Iran to respect human rights and the Prime Minister of neighbouring Turkey, Bulent Ecevit, said the unrest was the result of the "oppressive and outdated" Islamic regime.