Separatists in Iran kill up to 19, including Guard commander

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Iranian state-affiliated media reported late Friday that up to 19 people, including a paramilitary Revolutionary Guard commander, were killed in an attack by armed separatists on a police base in the eastern city of Zahedan.

It was not immediately clear if the attack, which unfolded earlier in the day when crowds had gathered at a nearby mosque for Friday prayers, was linked to the nationwide anti-government protests in Iran. The reports did not identify the separatist group.

In another development, Iran said it had detained nine foreigners linked to the protests, which authorities have blamed on hostile foreign entities, without providing evidence.

State television said armed separatists hid among believers and attacked a police base near the mosque in Zahedan. State news agency IRNA quoted witnesses as saying 19 people were killed and 15 injured, but there was no official confirmation.

The semi-official Tasnim news agency reported that the head of the Guards Intelligence Department, Seyyed Ali Mousavi, was shot dead during the attack and later died.

Sistan and Balochistan province borders Afghanistan and Pakistan and has witnessed attacks on security forces by ethnic Baloch separatists.

Thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets over the past two weeks to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested by morality police in the capital Tehran for allegedly wearing her mandatory Islamic headscarf relaxed.

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Protesters have vented their anger at the Islamic Republic’s treatment of women and wider oppression. The nationwide demonstrations quickly escalated into calls to overthrow 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 operating along the border with neighboring Iraq. Amini was an Iranian Kurd and the protests first broke out in Kurdish areas.

Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said the nine foreigners arrested included citizens from Germany, Poland, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Sweden, state news agency IRNA reported. It was not immediately clear whether they were Iranians with dual citizenship.

The ministry did not provide any evidence for any of its claims.

Iran has arrested a number of dual-citizen Iranians over the years, accusing them of spying on or otherwise undermining national security. Critics accuse Iran of using such prisoners as bargaining chips to obtain concessions from the international community.

A number of Europeans have been arrested in Iran in recent months, including a Swedish tourist, a Polish scientist and others. Two French men arrested in June are accused of meeting protesting teachers and taking part in an anti-government rally.

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Earlier Friday, London-based human rights group Amnesty International said it had received leaked government documents showing Iran had ordered its security forces to “seriously confront” protesters as demonstrations gathered strength earlier this month.

The London-based rights group said security forces had killed at least 52 people since protests over the death of Amini began nearly two weeks ago, including by firing live ammunition into crowds and beating protesters with batons.

Security forces are also said to have beaten and groped female protesters who removed their headscarves to protest the Iranian theocracy’s treatment of women.

Amnesty said it received a leaked copy of an official document which said that on September 21 the armed forces headquarters ordered commanders to “seriously confront troublemakers and anti-revolutionaries”. The rights group says the use of deadly force escalated later in the evening, with at least 34 people killed that night alone.

It said another leaked document showed that two days later, the commander of Mazandran province ordered the security forces “to face mercilessly and to the point of fatalities all riots by rioters and anti-revolutionaries,” referring to those opposed to the Iranian Islamists of 1979 were revolution that put the clergy in power.

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Amnesty did not say how they obtained the documents. There was no immediate comment from the Iranian authorities.

Iranian state television has reported that at least 41 protesters and police officers have been killed since the demonstrations began on September 17. An Associated Press tally of official statements by authorities put at least 14 dead, with more than 1,500 protesters arrested.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 28 reporters have been arrested.

Iranian authorities have severely restricted internet access, blocking access to Instagram and WhatsApp, popular social media applications also used by protesters to organize and share information.

That makes it difficult to gauge the scale of the protests, especially outside of the capital, Tehran. Iranian media have reported only sporadically on the demonstrations.

Iranians have long used virtual private networks and proxies to bypass government internet restrictions.

Shervin Hajipour, an amateur singer in Iran, recently posted a song on Instagram based on tweets about Amini, which received more than 40 million views in less than 48 hours before it was removed. The Iranian Human Rights Organization, a Norway-based group, said Hajipour was reportedly arrested. There was no official confirmation.