TEHRAN, Iran — Security forces and militiamen clashed with thousands of protesters shouting “death to the dictator” outside Tehran University on Monday, beating them with batons and firing tear gas on a day of nationwide student demonstrations, witnesses said.
The rallies were the largest in months, bringing tens of thousands out on more than a dozen campuses around the country and in several major squares in Tehran as university students — a bedrock of support for the pro-reform movement — energized the opposition. The anti-government movement has been reeling under a fierce crackdown since turmoil erupted over the disputed presidential election in June.
Thousands of riot police as well as forces of the elite Revolutionary Guard and their allied Basij militiamen flooded the area around Tehran University since the morning, trying to seal off the campus from the outside world and prevent unrest from spilling out into the streets.
Authorities covered the tall fence around the university with banners and signs bearing slogans from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hiding whatever took place inside. Cell phone networks around the universities were shut down, and police and Revolutionary Guard surrounded entrances, checking IDs of anyone entering to bar opposition activists, witnesses said.
“There’s anxiety that there will be violence and shooting. I shout slogans and demonstrate but try not to provoke any clash with the security,” Tehran University student Kouhyar Goudarzi told The Associated Press in Beirut by telephone. “We are worried.”
The fiercest violence was on the streets outside Tehran University. Thousands or protesters massed in support of the students, some chanting “death to the dictator,” witnesses said. Footage posted on YouTube showed some protesters burning pictures of Khamenei — breaking a major taboo against insulting the supreme leader, who stands at the pinnacle of Iran’s clerical leadership.
Riot police fired tear gas and Basij militiamen, some on motorcycles, charged the crowds. The plainclothes Basijis beat protesters on their heads and shoulders as the crowd scattered. They regrouped on nearby street corners, setting tires and garbage on fire to ward off the stinging tear gas. Nearby, protesters and Basijis pelted each other with large stones, the witnesses said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Shots were heard on nearby Enghelab Street, witnesses said. Pro-opposition Web sites reported that at least one protester was wounded in the area, but the reports could not be independently confirmed.
Inside Tehran University, hard-line students loyal to the government scuffled with protesters and some fist-fights broke out. In one photo obtained by The Associated Press, a pro-reform student wearing a green headband had blood streaming down his face after a beating. A young woman overcome by tear gas slumped to the ground as two other students tried to help her.
Several thousand students marched through the campus, many of them wearing surgical masks or scarves over their faces to protect against tear gas, photos from the scene obtained by the AP showed. Some wore green wristbands or waved green balloons, the colour of the opposition movement led by Mir Hossein Mousavi.
At the same time, the hard-line students — numbering about 2,000 — held their own march through the university. They waved pictures of Khamenei or Iranian flags and chanted “death to the hypocrites,” a reference to Mousavi and other opposition leaders.
Protests erupted at seven other universities in Tehran and on campuses on at least six other cities, the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported.
At Tehran’s Amir Kabir University, Basiji militiamen entered the campus and tried to break up a march by students, witnesses said. The Basijis pushed and shoved the students, dragging some away. At Sharif University, Tehran’s premier technology university, thousands of students blocked the main road leading into the campus, witnesses said.
Thousands more demonstrated at Tehran’s Polytechnic University, denouncing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with chants of: “You traitor Mahmoud … you destroyed our homeland.”
There was no immediate word on arrests or injuries from the unrest.
Journalists working for foreign media organizations, including the AP, were banned from covering Monday’s protests. They were told late Saturday by the Culture Ministry that their press cards would be suspended for three days starting Monday. Authorities also slowed Internet connections to a crawl in the capital. For some periods on Sunday, Web access was completely shut down — a tactic that authorities have resorted to periodically in the post-election period.
On the eve of the demonstrations, Mousavi threw his support behind the marches, declaring that his movement was still alive and that the clerical establishment was losing legitimacy in the Iranian people’s minds.
The protests were the largest in months — bigger than the last major rallies on Nov. 4. The turnout showed how the young, and particularly university students, have become the most fervent proponents of street action.
Mousavi and fellow pro-reform politicians have struggled to keep their movement’s enthusiasm stoked after the fierce crackdown launched after the disputed elections, which the opposition says Ahmadinejad stole from Mousavi by fraud. In the weeks after the election, hundreds of thousands marched in the street against Ahmadinejad, but the protests were crushed by a wave of arrests against protesters, politicians and activists.
Since then, the opposition has only managed to hold smaller protests of several thousands — and only by timing the marches to coincide with significant national events to help drum up a crowd. Monday’s protests were held on National Students Day, an annual occasion when student rallies are traditionally held.
The supreme leader, who has final say on all state matters, accused the opposition Sunday of causing divisions in the country and creating opportunities for Iran’s enemies.
Authorities have arrested well over 100 student leaders in past weeks, looking to blunt Monday’s protests. On Saturday, police detained 15 women from the Committee of Mourning Mothers, which groups relatives of protesters who have been killed in Iran’s postelection crackdown. The women were arrested at a Tehran park where they have held weekly protests for months, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
Students at Tehran University played a major role in street demonstrations in support of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled to pro-U.S. shah and brought clerics to power. But in the past decade, universities have become strongholds for the pro-reform opposition, which seeks to reduce the clerics’ domination of politics.
AP correspondent Scheherezade Faramarzi in Beirut contributed to this report.