Anger in Iran over jet’s downing; gunfire disperses protests

Monday, January 13, 2020

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Popular anger swelled Monday in Iran over the accidental shootdown of a Ukrainian jetliner and the government’s attempt to conceal its role in the tragedy, as online videos appeared to show security forces firing live ammunition and tear gas to disperse protests in the streets.

Iranians, already suffering under crippling U.S. sanctions, expressed shock and outrage over the plane crash that killed scores of young people. They also decried the misleading statements from top officials, who only admitted responsibility three days later in the face of mounting evidence.

The country began last week engulfed in mourning after a U.S. drone strike killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who led Iran’s regional military interventions. Then on Jan. 8, it responded with a ballistic missile attack on two bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq, although there were no casualties. Hours after that barrage, as it braced for a U.S. counterattack that never came, Iranian forces accidentally shot down the Ukraine International Airlines jetliner, killing all 176 people aboard shortly after it took off from Tehran for Kyiv.

For a growing number of critics — from ordinary citizens to notable athletes and artists — the events have revealed a government that is incapable of following through on its incendiary rhetoric and willing to mislead its own people about a national tragedy in order to avoid embarrassment.

Those sentiments first boiled over late Saturday, shortly after the Revolutionary Guard admitted to shooting the plane down by mistake. A candlelight vigil at a university rapidly turned into an anti-government demonstration.

“They are lying that our enemy is America! Our enemy is right here!” students shouted.

On Sunday night, protesters massed in Tehran’s Azadi, or Freedom, Square.

Videos sent to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran and later verified by The Associated Press show a crowd of demonstrators near Azadi Square fleeing as a tear gas canister lands among them. People cough and sputter while trying to escape the fumes, with one woman calling out in Farsi: “They fired tear gas at people! Azadi Square! Death to the dictator!”

Another video shows a woman being carried away in the aftermath of the violence, a trail of blood visible on the ground. Those around her cry out that she has been shot in the leg.

“Oh my God, she’s bleeding nonstop!” one person shouts. Another shouts: “Bandage it!”

Photos and video after the incident show pools of blood on the sidewalk.

Tehran’s police chief, Gen. Hossein Rahimi, later denied that his officers opened fire.

“Police treated people who had gathered with patience and tolerance,” Iranian media quoted Rahimi as saying. “Police did not shoot in the gatherings since broadmindedness and restraint has been the agenda of the police forces of the capital.”

The semi-official Fars news agency reported that police had “shot tear gas in some areas.”

Fars, which is close to the Revolutionary Guard, carried videos purportedly shot Sunday night showing demonstrators chanting: “We are children of war. Fight with us, we will fight back.” Another Fars video showed demonstrators in Tehran tearing down a poster of Soleimani.

On Sunday, authorities deployed forces across Tehran — police, members of the Revolutionary Guard on motorcycles and plainclothes security men. The heavy security presence continued into Monday, when protests were largely confined to universities and there were no reports of clashes.

President Donald Trump has openly encouraged the demonstrators, even tweeting messages of support in Farsi and warning the government not to fire on them. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted that “we are following the protests in Tehran very attentively,” adding that Iranians “have a right to free expression without repression and persecution.”

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