UN urges Iran restraint as reports say 'rioters' kill 3 soldiers

UN warns of 'very serious' number of casualties but Iran leaders stand by fuel price rise, slam 'thugs' behind protests.

    Many Iranians already struggling amid a major economic downturn have been quick to register their anger over the rise in petrol prices [AFP]
    Many Iranians already struggling amid a major economic downturn have been quick to register their anger over the rise in petrol prices [AFP]

    The United Nations has called for Iranian authorities to rein in the use of force to disperse protests sparked by a fuel price rise, as Iranian media reported that three members of the country's security forces were stabbed to death by "rioters".

    In comments made to reporters in Geneva on Tuesday, Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN's high commissioner for human rights, said the body had received reports that dozens of people were killed during the demonstrations. Describing the extent of the reported casualties as "clearly very serious", Colville called on authorities to uphold the demonstrators' rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

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    His comments came a day after the semi-official ISNA news agency reported late on Monday that three members of Iran's security forces were killed by "rioters" near the capital, Tehran.

    The report brought the number of people killed during protests against fuel price rise to at least 11 - five security forces and six civilians - according to figures collated by Al Jazeera.

    ISNA said the three people killed were stabbed by assailants on the outskirts of TehranOne of the three was identified as Morteza Ebrahimi, a commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The other two were Majid Sheikhi, 22, and Mostafa Rezaie, 33. Both served in the Basij militia, a volunteer force loyal to the establishment.

    Protests erupt

    Demonstrations first erupted on Friday when authorities rolled out a petrol rationing scheme and slashed subsidies in a move that sent prices rising by 50 percent.

    Officials say the changes, which form part of efforts to blunt the effects of crippling US sanctions on Iran's economy, are aimed at raising funds for cash handouts to the country's poorest citizens.

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    But many Iranians already struggling amid a major economic downturn were quick to register their anger over the new policy, agreed on by the Supreme Council of Economic Coordination made up of President Hassan Rouhani, judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi and Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani.

    Large demonstrations took place in recent days in several towns and cities across Iran, with drivers abandoning vehicles on highways and protesters blocking roads. They soon turned violent and spread to cities and towns across Iran, with banks, petrol stations and other public property set alight and shops looted.

    "These protests are not like anything we have seen before in Iran," Al Jazeera's Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran, said.

    "They are happening by people branded 'thugs' by officials, because they are rioting, not gathering or demonstrating in any kind of organised or secure fashion," she added.

    "They are looting a number of banks, petrol stations and police offices across the country, according to officials, and security forces have been deployed across the country to try and deal with them."

    'Calm restored'

    Still, the full extent of the protests remains unclear largely as a result of internet restrictions imposed on Saturday.

    Netblocks, a website that monitors global net shutdowns, said Iran's internet connectivity was at four percent compared with normal levels.

    The government said on Tuesday it will unblock the internet only when authorities are sure it will not be "abused" during the protests.

    "Many professions and banks ... have faced problems, and we have been trying to solve this," spokesman Ali Rabiei was quoted as saying by ISNA.

    "The internet will come back gradually in some provinces where there are assurances the internet will not be abused," he said. "We understand that people have faced difficulties ... but the bigger concern under the current circumstances is maintaining the country's peace and stability."

    His comments came as an Iranian judiciary spokesman said on Tuesday that protests across the country had subsided.

    "Calm has been restored in the country," Iran's judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told a news conference.

    His comments came a day after the IRGC warned of "decisive" action if the protests did not cease. In recent years, protests against the state of the economy have been met with a heavy-handed reaction by security forces.

    Economic woes

    Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has backed the council's move, has labelled protesters taking violent action as "thugs" and accused counter-revolutionaries and foreign enemies of heightening the unrest.

    For his part, Rouhani warned that "anarchy and rioting" will not be tolerated and said families would start receiving financial assistance on Monday from the funds raised by the move.

    According to the IMF, Iran's economy is already in "severe distress" and set to contract by 9.5 percent this year as it struggles under the weight of the US sanctions imposed following US President Donald Trump's decision last year to unilaterally exit a landmark 2015 nuclear accord brokered between Iran and several other world powers.

    The deal saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

    Amid the continuing slump, jobs have become increasingly scarce and inflation of more than 40 percent has caused the price of everyday goods such as bread and rice to rise sharply.

    The downturn has also seen Iran's currency - the rial - plunge to record lows against the dollar.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies