Iranian social media posts urged citizens to take to the streets for a fifth day after public anger following a belated admission by authorities they shot down a passenger aircraft in error last week.
Protesters, with students at the forefront, staged daily rallies in Tehran and other cities since Saturday, when authorities admitted a role in bringing down a Ukrainian airliner last week, killing all 176 aboard, after days of denials.
The aircraft was downed by air defences on January 8 when armed forces were on high alert for US reprisals following tit-for-tat military strikes, the latest escalation in a long crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Britain, France and Germany formally accused Iran of violating terms of its 2015 agreement to curb its nuclear programme, a move that could lead to re-imposing UN sanctions.
Iran’s president called the disaster an “unforgivable error”, the military issued profuse apologies and the judiciary arrested some accused of a role in the crash, in an effort to quell public outrage.
Some protests were met with a violent crackdown. Videos on social media showed people beaten by riot police and shocked with electric batons. They also recorded gunfire and blood on the ground. Most protests flared at night.
“We’re coming to the streets,” one posting on social media said, urging people to join nationwide demonstrations against a “thieving and corrupt government”.
Wednesday marks a week since the crash, coinciding with a Muslim Shi’ite tradition of mourning the dead after seven days.
Tuesday’s protests appeared smaller, with postings showing peaceful demonstrations, mainly on university campuses.
Thousands of protesters were shown in videos gathering in cities across Iran. Many were outside universities while Tehran’s central Azadi Square was a focal point. The full scale of protests and unrest is difficult to determine due to restrictions on independent reporting.
State-affiliated media reported protests but gave limited details.
Police denied shooting at protesters and said officers were told to show restraint. The judiciary said it arrested 30 people and would show tolerance to “legal protests”.
Iranians were outraged the military took days to admit it shot down Ukraine International Airlines flight 752, carrying mainly Iranians or dual nationals. They asked why the aircraft was allowed to take off at a time of high tension.
Iran launched missile strikes against US targets in Iraq hours earlier in retaliation for a drone strike that killed a top Iranian commander in Iraq on January 3.
‘DEATH TO KHAMENEI’
Security camera footage showed two missiles, fired 30 seconds apart, hitting the aircraft after take-off, the New York Times reported, after US intelligence officials said heat signatures of two surface-to-air missiles were detected.
Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said a person who posted a video of a missile striking the airliner was taken into custody by the Revolutionary Guards, the elite force that said one of its operators shot down the aircraft.
Since the official admission, Iranians staged vigils for victims, which turned into protests against Iran’s system of clerical rule. “Death to Khamenei,” protesters chanted in anger at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In November, Iranian authorities quelled protests with a crackdown that killed 1 500 people, Interior Ministry sources told Reuters. Rights groups put the figure in hundreds and Iran called the toll “fake news”.
Iran stepped back from its commitments to the 2015 deal, under which Tehran said it would scale back on its nuclear work in return for the lifting of international sanctions.
Britain, France and Germany launched a dispute mechanism to challenge Tehran for breaching limits on its programme, which Tehran insists is peaceful but Western capitals said is designed to develop weapons.
Russia, also a signatory to the pact, said triggering the mechanism might make it impossible to return to the deal.
On Thursday, London hosts a meeting of Canada, Ukraine, Britain and other nations who had citizens on the downed aircraft to discuss legal action against Iran, Ukraine said.
Canada, which had 57 citizens on the flight, sent investigators to Iran, where they visited the crash site, Iranian media reported.