Iran protests: blasts and gunfire rock western regions

New videos suggest oil sector workers are joining the demonstrations sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody

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Blasts and gunfire rocked a western Iranian city on Monday as anti-government protests entered their fourth week with rallies across the country against its deeply entrenched theocracy.

Demonstrators in several cities in the Kurdish-populated west of the country on Sunday night chanted slogans and twirled headscarves, rejecting coercive religious dress codes, according to several videos posted by the opposition media outlet Iran International.

While students have played a pivotal role in the protests, with dozens of universities on strike, unconfirmed reports on social media showed workers at Abadan and Kangan oil refineries and the Bushehr Petrochemical Project had joined in. Videos shared online showed scores of labourers and uniformed workers marching through the plant in Bushehr chanting “don’t be afraid, we’re all together” and “death to the dictator”.

The protests erupted on September 17, following the death of Iranian-Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini, 22, in police custody and have raged ever since, representing one of the biggest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the 2009 Green Movement protests.

Amini had been detained for an alleged breach of Iran's strict Islamic dress code for women.

On Monday, the sound of apparent gunshots and explosions echoed through the Kurdish city of Sanandaj, as well as in the village of Salas Babajani near the border with Iraq, according to a Kurdish group called the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights.

Hengaw posted footage it described as smoke rising in one neighbourhood in Sanandaj, with what sounded like rapid rifle fire echoing through the night sky as the shouts of people could be heard.

There was no immediate word if people had been hurt in the violence. Hengaw later posted a video online of what appeared to be collected shell casings from rifles and shotguns, as well as spent tear gas canisters.

Authorities offered no immediate explanation about the violence early Monday in Sanandaj, some 400 kilometres west of Tehran. Amini was a Kurdish woman and her death has been particularly felt in Iran’s Kurdish region.

Esmail Zarei Kousha, the governor of Iran’s Kurdistan province, alleged without providing evidence that unknown groups “plotted to kill young people on the streets” on Saturday, the semiofficial Fars news agency reported Monday.

Mr Kousha also accused these unnamed groups that day of shooting a young man in the head and killing him — an attack that activists roundly have blamed on Iranian security forces. They say Iranian forces opened fire after the man honked his car horn at them. Honking has become one of the ways activists have been expressing civil disobedience — an action that has seen riot police in other videos smashing the windshields of passing vehicles.

In the village of Salas Babajani, some 100 kilometres southwest of Sanandaj, Iranian security forces repeatedly shot a 22-year-old man protesting there who later died of his wounds, Hengaw said. It said others had been wounded in the shooting.

The security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters in Tehran's Naziabad neighbourhood. There were also reports that two other protesters had been shot.

"Police forces used tear gas to disperse the crowds in dozens of locations in Tehran," state news agency Irna reported, adding that the demonstrators "chanted slogans and set fire to and damaged public property, including a police booth".

BBC Persian published a video of people in Sanandaj chanting in unison from their windows: “It’s the end of you.”

Since then, protests have spread across the country and have been met with a fierce crackdown, in which dozens are thought to have been killed and hundreds arrested.

University students and even young schoolgirls in some cities have joined the protests in recent days, chanting "woman, life, freedom".

In videos the Kurdish Hengaw Organisation for Human Rights said were recorded on Saturday in Amini's home town of Saqez, schoolgirls chanted and marched down a street, swinging their hijabs in the air.

Meanwhile, a prison riot has struck the city of Rasht, killing some inmates there, a prosecutor reportedly said. It wasn’t immediately clear if the riot at Lakan Prison involved the ongoing protests, though Rasht has seen heavy demonstrations in recent weeks since Amini’s death.

The semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted Gilan provincial prosecutor Mehdi Fallah Miri as saying “some prisoners died because of their wounds as the electricity was cut [at the prison] because of the damage.” He also alleged prisoners refused to allow authorities to access those wounded.

Miri described the riot as breaking out in a wing of a prison housing death penalty inmates.

State TV hacked

Meanwhile, hackers interrupted a state TV news broadcast with an image of gun-sight crosshairs and flames over an image of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in footage widely shared online on Sunday.

In other anti-regime messages, activists have spray-painted "death to Khamenei" and "the police are the murderers of the people" on billboards in Tehran.

"The blood of our youths is on your hands," read an on-screen message that flashed up briefly during the TV broadcast on Saturday evening.

"Join us and rise up," read another message in the TV hack claimed by the group Edalat-e Ali (Ali's Justice).

It also posted pictures of Amini and three other women killed in the crackdown that has claimed at least 95 lives according to the Norway-based group Iran Human Rights.

Another 90 people were killed in Iran's far south-east, in unrest on September 30 sparked by the alleged rape of a teenage girl by a police chief in Sistan and Baluchestan province, said IHR.

One Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps member was killed on Saturday in Sanandaj, and a member of the IRGC's Basij paramilitary force died in Tehran from "a serious head injury following an armed attack by a mob," Irna said ― in killings that raised the death toll among the security forces to 14.

New tactics against online restrictions

In the face of the violence and online restrictions, protesters have adopted new tactics to spread their message of resistance in public spaces.

"We are not afraid any more. We will fight," read one large banner placed on an overpass of Tehran's Modares motorway, seen in images verified by AFP.

In other footage, a man with a spray can is seen altering the wording of a government billboard on the same route from "the police are the servants of the people" to "the police are the murderers of the people".

Several water features in the Iranian capital were said to have been coloured blood-red, although the head of the city's municipality parks organisation Ali Mohamad Mokhtari insisted that "this information is completely false and there isn't any change in the colours of fountains in Tehran".

Iran has accused outside forces of stirring up the protests, as solidarity rallies have been worldwide.

The US, EU and other governments have imposed new sanctions on Iran.

Updated: October 10, 2022, 5:23 PM