Riot police on Monday fired tear gas and shot paintballs at protesters who turned what they said was a Tehran rally in support of Arab uprisings into an anti-government demonstration, witnesses said.
The clashes broke out at Tehran’s prominent Azadi Square when crowds of opposition supporters began chanting “Death to Dictator!” — a slogan used by protesters against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
Witnesses said police fired tear gas and also shot paintballs at protesters who had gathered despite a ban by authorities.
Websites and witnesses said thousands of opposition supporters had taken to the streets of the capital in support of Arab revolts despite a heavy police deployment.
Iranian authorities had earlier surrounded the house of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to prevent him from attending the rally which regime-backers said was a ploy to stage anti-government protests similar to those which shook the foundations of the Islamic republic in 2009.
While Iran has backed the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the interior ministry in Tehran banned the Monday rally which Mousavi and fellow opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi had sought to hold.
Witnesses and websites said the opposition supporters had walked in scattered crowds silently to Azadi Square from several parts of the capital as policemen kept a sharp watch and tried dispersing them.
Riot police on motorbikes armed with shotguns, tear gas, batons, paintball guns and fire extinguishers were deployed in key squares in the capital to prevent the gatherings.
One witness said some demonstrators were chanting “Allahu Akbar!” as they gathered around alleys near Azadi Square.
Another witness described how one group of demonstrators had walked silently from Imam Hussein Square to Enghelab Square. “They are being silent and trying to keep a low profile,” the witness said.
“Some policemen are chasing protesters in order to disperse them,” another witness said, adding around 1,000 anti-riot policemen were also deployed in and around Imam Hussein Square.
More police and Basij militiamen took up positions in Haft-e Tir square, a regular site for intense anti-government protests in 2009.
The foreign media has been banned by authorities from on-the-spot reporting of the gatherings.
Police meanwhile stopped Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard from attending the rally as they tried to step out of their house at around 2:45 pm (1115 GMT), Mousavi’s website Kaleme.com reported.
Kaleme.com said earlier that police had blocked access to Mousavi’s house since early Monday. “From today the police have blocked the alley where their house is located…There is no possibility of coming and going,” it said.
The report said all telephone lines at the house, including the mobile phone connections of Mousavi and his wife, have been severed.
Karroubi himself has been under de facto house arrest for almost a week with his family and relatives barred from visiting him.
The two leaders and their supporters remain steadfast in rejecting Ahmadinejad’s presidency, saying the hardliner was re-elected due to massive vote rigging in June 2009.
Their protests in the immediate aftermath of the election brought hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets of Tehran and other cities, shaking the pillars of the Islamic regime and dividing the nation’s elite clergy.
Iranian authorities crushed those demonstrations during which scores of people were killed and wounded, and thousands arrested in a crackdown by security forces and members of the feared Basij militia.
Iranian officials, including commanders from the elite military force, the Revolutionary Guards, and the Basij militia had warned the opposition against staging Monday’s rally.
Organisers of Tehran’s popular Fajr theatre festival cancelled street plays planned for Monday, on concerns over the safety of artists and audiences amid the gatherings, the ISNA news agency said.