Thousands of demonstrators in cities across Iran faced tear gas and accused security forces of firing live ammunition as police aggressively countered intensifying protests prompted by the shoot-down of a Ukrainian commercial jet.
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran posted video of crowds fleeing tear gas clouds in Tehran’s Freedom Square on Sunday night. Another video showed a bloodied woman saying she had been hit with a bullet fired by police.
Demonstrators shouted anti-government slogans including “They are lying that our enemy is America. Our enemy is right here!”
Gen. Hossein Rahimi, denied claims his officers opened fire, saying only that tear gas was fired “in some areas.” The claims come after security forces were accused of opening fire on demonstrators during protests over fuel price hikes in November, when hundreds reportedly died in clashes with police.
“Police treated people who had gathered with patience and tolerance,” Rahimi told Iranian media.
Still, the size of the protests paled compared to the millions who turned out to mourn the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, viewed as a terrorist by the U.S., who was killed in a drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump in Iraq 10 days ago. Those crowds shouted hate-filled slogans aimed at the U.S. and Trump.
Since Saturday, however, the protests have targeted the Iranian military, the government and even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
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Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 had just taken off Wednesday from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport bound for Kiev, Ukraine, when it exploded, killing all 176 aboard. Eighty-two of the victims were Iranians.
As the nation mourned, Iranian officials quickly blamed the tragedy on a technical failure, a story they stuck with until Friday.
Ali Rabiei, a government spokesman, insisted that was when Iran’s civilian officials learned the plane had been shot down by Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard.
“We did not lie,” Rabiei said. He also said the U.S. shared in the blame for its aggressive military tactics that had the military on edge waiting for a military strike.
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Aerospace Force of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, said he wished he was dead when he heard that his forces downed the plane.
This image from a Jan. 12, 2020, video provided by the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran shows people fleeing police near Azadi, or Freedom, Square in Tehran. (Photo: AP)
Hajizadeh said Iran’s air defense systems had been put on the “highest level of readiness” for possible cruise missile attack. He said the operator manning the system had repeatedly called for a halt in flights in the region.
The air defense system incorrectly detected the plane as an incoming cruise missile, and the operator called for orders. But the communication network failed, he said. Hajizadeh said the operator then “took the wrong decision” of firing on the perceived threat.
“For a lifetime, we put our life on the line for the people, and today we put our honor on the line for God and face the cameras in such difficult circumstances,” he said.
Iranian leaders have tried to spread the blame to Trump for his threats of military reprisals. Tensions between the nations have been on the rise since the Trump administration exited the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, reimposing sanctions and pursuing a “maximum pressure” policy on Tehran.
The Iranian press provided some coverage of the protests. The semi-official Fars news agency reported that up to 1,000 people were protesting at various points in the capital. Protests were also reported in other cities.
The Iranian press gave better play, however, to students who gathered in front of the British embassy on Sunday chanting “death to Britain” and “the British embassy should be closed.”
British Ambassador to Tehran Robert Macaire had been briefly detained during a protest in front of the Amir Kabir University in downtown Tehran. Fars said he had been provoking “tens of protesters upset” with how the government handled the crash.
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