'Seven killed as protesters launched attack'

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Iran's state radio reported today that clashes in the Iranian capital the previous day left seven people dead during an "unauthorised gathering" at a mass rally over alleged election fraud — the first official confirmation of deaths linked to the wave of protests and street battles after disputed elections in last week.

The report said the deaths occurred after protesters "tried to attack a military location." It gave no further details, but it was a clear reference to crowds who came under gunfire Monday after trying to storm a compound for volunteer militia linked to Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard.

The shootings came at the end of huge rally by opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming widespread fraud in Friday's voting. The protest movement has shown no signs of easing — with another reported rally planned for later Tuesday — and has even forced Iran's non-elected ruling clerics into the unfamiliar role of middlemen between the government and its opponents.

The deaths also raise the prospect of further defiance and anger from crowds claiming that reformist leader Mir Hossein Mousavi was the rightful winner of the election. Mousavi's backers reportedly plan to gather in a Tehran square later Tuesday where pro-Ahmadinejad crowd also have called a rally to demand punishment of "rioters."

In a message posted on his Web site, Mousavi said he will not attend the rally and asked his supporters "not fall in the trap of street riots" and exercise self-restraint."

The deaths Monday occurred on the edge of Tehran's Azadi Square after hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters defied an official ban and marched through the city. An Associated Press photographer saw gunmen, standing on a roof, opening fire on a group of demonstrators who tried to storm the militia compound.

Angry men showed their bloody palms after cradling the dead and wounded who had been part of a crowd that stretched more than five miles (nearly 10 kilometers).

The march also marked Mousavi's first public appearance since shortly after the election and said he was willing to "pay any price" in his demands to overturn the election results.

Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, arrived in Russia on Tuesday to attend a regional security summit, after having postponed the trip for one day.

A Web site run by Iran's former reformist vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, said he had been arrested by security officers, but provided no further details. Abtahi's Web site, popular among the youth, has reported extensively on the alleged vote fraud after Friday's election.

In Washington, President Barack Obama said Monday he was "deeply troubled by the violence I've been seeing on TV."

Although he said he had no way of knowing whether the election was valid, Obama praised protesters and Iranian youth who questioned the results. "The world is watching and is inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was," he said.

The huge rally Monday — and smaller protests around the country — display the resolve of Mousavi's backers and have pushed Iran's Islamic establishment into attempts to cool the tensions after days of unrest.

The death toll reported Tuesday was the first in Tehran since the postelection turmoil gripped Iran and could be a further rallying point in a culture that venerates martyrs and often marks their death with memorials. One of Mousavi's Web sites said a student protester was killed early Monday in clashes with plainclothes hard-liners in Shiraz in southern Iran but there was no independent confirmation of the report.

Britain and Germany joined the calls of alarm over the rising confrontations in Iran. In Paris, the Foreign Ministry summoned the Iranian ambassador to discuss the allegations of vote-tampering and the violence.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's most powerful figure, has ordering (ordered) an examination into the fraud allegations, although he had initially welcomed Ahmadinejad's victory.

The 12-member Guardian Council, made up of clerics and experts in Islamic law, was asked to study the claims. The council, which is closely allied to Khamenei, must certify ballot results, but nullifying an election would be an unprecedented step. Mousavi has said he was not hopeful about the council to restore his rights because council members are not neutral and have already expressed support for Ahmadinejad.

Claims of voting irregularities went to the council after Ahmadinejad's upset victory in 2005, but there was no official word on the outcome of the inquiry, and the vote stood.