QUETTA, Pakistan: Communication services were down in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan on Saturday after a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander was killed in clashes.
Protests broke out in the capital of the Sistan and Balochistan province bordering Pakistan on Friday after the rape of a 15-year-old Baloch girl, allegedly by a local military commander, caused public outrage.
Ali Mousavi, IRGC intelligence chief of Sistan and Balochistan, was shot during the confrontation with protesters. The IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported that Mousavi was pronounced dead at a hospital.
Mousavi’s killing was claimed by the Jaish Al-Adl militant group, which says it is fighting for the independence of Sistan and Balochistan and greater rights for Baloch people, who are the main ethnic group in the province.
Footage emerging from Zahedan showed people carrying dead and wounded protesters amid heavy gunfire. The provincial administration said 19 people had died in the clashes. Local news agency Haal-e Vash reported the number of deaths to be at least 36, with dozens more wounded.
Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency, had a different version of the violence. It reported that armed separatists attacked a police station in Zahedan, killing 19 people, including four IRGC members.
IRNA quoted Hossein Modaresi, the provincial governor, as saying 19 people were killed. The outlet said 32 Guard members, including volunteer Basiji forces, were also wounded in the clashes.
IRNA on Saturday identified the dead as Hamidreza Hashemi, a Revolutionary Guard colonel; Mohammad Amin Azarshokr, a Guard member; Mohamad Amin Arefi, a Basiji, or volunteer force with the IRG; and Saeed Borhan Rigi, also a Basiji.
The death of the provincial IRGC intelligence chief is a major escalation in the anti-government demonstrations that began in mid-September, triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was being held in custody by the Iranian morality police for wearing her headscarf “inappropriately.”
Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets over the last two weeks to protest the death of Mahsa Amini. The protesters have vented their anger over the treatment of women and wider repression in the Islamic Republic. The nationwide demonstrations rapidly escalated into calls for the overthrow of the clerical establishment that has ruled Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution.
The protests have drawn supporters from various ethnic groups, including Kurdish opposition movements in the northwest that operate along the border with neighboring Iraq. Amini was an Iranian Kurd and the protests first erupted in Kurdish areas.
Iranian state TV has reported that at least 41 protesters and police have been killed since the demonstrations began Sept. 17. An Associated Press count of official statements by authorities tallied at least 14 dead, with more than 1,500 demonstrators arrested.
Also on Friday, Iran said it had arrested nine foreigners linked to the protests, which authorities have blamed on hostile foreign entities, without providing evidence.
It has been difficult to gauge the extent of the protests, particularly outside of Tehran. Iranian media have only sporadically covered the demonstrations.
Students demonstrated in Tehran and other Iranian cities on Saturday against the ongoing crackdown.
Iranians based abroad and their supporters gathered in cities around the world in solidarity.
“Woman, life, freedom” and “Death to the dictator”, they chanted in the streets of Amini’s hometown of Saqqez, in Kurdistan province.
Riot police massed at major road junctions across the capital, as students demonstrated in Enghelab (Revolution) Square near Tehran University in the city centre to press for the release of arrested students.
Police clashed with the protesters who were chanting slogans and arrested some of them.
Video footage shared by the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights group also showed student protests in other cities, including second city Mashhad and Karaj, west of the capital.
The protesters were seen chanting and women having removed their headscarves.
Demonstrations of support were called in 159 cities across the globe — from Auckland to New York and Seoul to Zurich, the Iranians for Justice and Human Rights group said. In Rome, at a rally of about 1,000 people, a half dozen women cut their hair in solidarity.
Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, meanwhile, reminded Iran’s armed forces of their duty to people’s lives and rights, the foreign-based opposition Telegram channel Kaleme reported.
Mousavi’s Green Movement challenged Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election in unrest at a level unseen since its 1979 Islamic Revolution before being crushed by authorities.
“Obviously your capability that was awarded to you is for defending people, not suppression people, defending oppressed, not serving powerful people and oppressors,” he said.