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Saturday September 26th, 2020 4:32AM

As internet restored, online Iran protest videos show chaos

By The Associated Press
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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Machine gun fire answers rock-throwing protesters. Motorcycle-riding Revolutionary Guard volunteers chase after demonstrators. Plainclothes security forces grab, beat and drag a man off the street to an uncertain fate.

As Iran restores the internet after a weeklong government-imposed shutdown, new videos purport to show the demonstrations over gasoline prices rising and the security-force crackdown that followed.

The videos offer only fragments of encounters, but to some extent they fill in the larger void left by Iran’s state-controlled television and radio channels. On their airwaves, hard-line officials allege that foreign conspiracies and exile groups instigated the unrest. In print, newspapers offered only PR for the government or had merely stenographic reporting at best, the moderate daily Hamshahri said in an analysis Sunday.

They don’t acknowledge that the gasoline price hike Nov. 15, supported by its civilian government, came as Iran’s 80 million people already have seen their savings dwindle and jobs scarce under crushing U.S. sanctions. President Donald Trump imposed them in the aftermath of unilaterally withdrawing America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

Authorities also have yet to give any overall figures for how many people were injured, arrested or killed during the several days of protests that swept across some 100 cities and towns.

Amnesty International said it believes the unrest and the crackdown killed at least 106 people. Iran disputes that figure without offering its own. A U.N. office earlier said it feared the unrest may have killed “a significant number of people.”

Starting Nov. 16, Iran shut down the internet across the country, limiting communications with the outside world. That made determining the scale and longevity of the protests incredibly difficult. Some recycled days-old videos and photographs as new, making it even more difficult.

Since Saturday, internet connectivity spiked in the country, allowing people to access foreign websites for the first time. On Sunday, connectivity stood nearly at 100% for landline services, while mobile phone internet service remained scarce, the advocacy group NetBlocks said.

The restoration brought messaging apps back to life for Iranians cut off from loved ones abroad. It also meant that videos again began being shared widely.

Recently released videos span the country. One video from Shiraz, some 680 kilometers (420 miles) south of Tehran, purports to show a crowd of over 100 people scatter as gunfire erupts from a police station in the city. One man bends down to pick up debris as a person off-camera describes demonstrators throwing stones. Another gunshot rings out, followed by a burst of machine gun fire.

In Kerman, some 800 kilometers (500 miles) southeast of Tehran, the sound of breaking glass echoes over a street where debris burns in the center of a street. Motorcycle-riding members of the Basij, the all-volunteer force of Iran’s paramilitary Guard, then chase the protesters away.

Another video in Kermanshah, some 420 kilometers (260 miles) southwest of Tehran, purports shows the dangers that lurked on the streets of Iran in recent days. Plainclothes security forces, some wielding nightsticks, drag one man off by the hair of his head. The detained man falls at one point.

“Look, (the agents) wear styles like the youth,” one man off-camera says, swearing at them.

On Sunday, it remained unclear if and how widespread any remaining demonstrations were. The acting commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Ali Fadavi, repeated the allegation that America was behind the protests, without offering any evidence to support his claim.

“Why did (the Americans) get angry after we cut off the internet? Because the internet is the channel through which Americans wanted to perform their evil and vicious acts,” Fadavi said. “We will deal with this, Islamic Republic supporters, and our proud men and women will sign up to make a domestic system similar to the internet with operating systems that (the Americans) can't (control) even if they want.”

That likely refers to what has been known as the “halal net,” Iran’s own locally controlled version of the internet aimed at restricting what the public can see. The system known as the National Information Network has some 500 government-approved national websites that stream content far faster than those based abroad, which are intentionally slowed, activists say. Iranian officials say it allows the Islamic Republic to be independent if the world cuts it off instead.

But while Fadavi earlier said the protests were put down in 48 hours, he also acknowledged the scope of the unrest by comparing it to Operation Karbala-4, one of the worst military disasters suffered by Iran during its bloody 1980s war with Iraq.

That scope could be seen in one video. In the capital, Tehran, footage earlier aired by the BBC’s Persian service shot from a car purports to show a tableau of violence on Sattarkhan Street, as anti-riot police officers clashed with protesters.

In the video, a woman’s scream rises over the shouts of the crowd as plainclothes security forces wearing white surgical masks accost one man, who puts his hands up to his face and hunches over to shield his body. Men walk backward to watch the chaos amid police with batons and riot shields, then run.

A woman in a green headscarf argues with one anti-riot police officer in front of a car.

“What do you say?” the police officer asks.

“He kicked my car,” she responds.

“Move,” the police officer orders. “Whom do you want to blame in this situation?”

Someone chases a man in front of a bank as people curse. The car makes a right-hand turn onto another street. A police officer off-camera shouts: “Come here!”

“Go, go, go!” a woman in the car cries out.

The car speeds away, passing burning debris. The clip ends. It lasts only 35 seconds.

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