Iranian authorities confirmed for the first time this week security forces shot dead demonstrators during what rights groups said was the deadliest anti-government unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
State television acknowledged killing protesters, without giving figures, hours before US President Donald Trump said Iran “is killing perhaps thousands of people as we speak”.
The unrest, which began on November 15 after government raised fuel prices by up to 300%, spread to more than 100 cities and towns and turned political with protesters demanding clerical leaders step down. Protests were snuffed out by a security crackdown.
Amnesty International said in a statement “extensive video footage verified and analysed” by the organisation’s digital verification wing showed “security forces shooting at unarmed protesters”.
State TV said: “Rioters were armed with knives and weapons. They took people hostage by closing roads in some areas. Security forces had no other choice but to firmly confront them and rioters were killed in clashes.”
Iran provided no official death toll. Amnesty said it documented the deaths of at least 208 protesters, making the disturbances the bloodiest since the 1979 uprising toppling the US-backed shah and pitting Shi’ite clerics in power.
Iran’s judiciary spokesman rejected the death toll given by “hostile groups” as “sheer lies”, TV reported.
Tehran authorities cut off internet access for a week during the unrest, blocking those in country from sharing videos and information on social media to generate support.
The TV report said security forces clashed with “rioters armed with semi-heavy weapons” in Mahshar, in Iran’s oil-rich southwest province of Khuzestan, which suffered one of the highest death tolls. It added passers-by and security force members were also killed.
Anger over economic stagnation and reputed graft in the clerical and security hierarchies has been building since last year when Trump pulled the United States out of the international 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, calling it defective, and re-imposed sanctions further crippling Iran’s oil-based economy.
Iran accused the US and its regional allies of fomenting unrest, which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described as the work of a “dangerous conspiracy”.
Trump, in London for a NATO summit, told reporters the US did not support the anti-government unrest. Soon after he tweeted that it did back “the brave people of Iran protesting for their freedom”.
The Intelligence Ministry said leaders of a group planning unrest at universities in Tehran were arrested and many of the 2,021 people detained around the capital last month have been released.