Crowds clash with cleric as Iran tower collapse kills 32

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Protesters angry over a building collapse in southwestern Iran that killed at least 32 people have shouted at an envoy sent by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sparking a crackdown that saw protesters from the riot police club and firing tear gas, according to online videos analyzed on Monday.

The protest directly challenged the Iranian government’s response to the disaster a week ago as pressure mounts in the Islamic Republic over rising food prices and other economic problems amid the collapse of its nuclear deal with world powers.

While the protests so far seem still leaderless, even Arab tribes in the region appeared to join them on Sunday, raising the risk of escalating unrest. Already, tensions between Tehran and the West have risen after Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guards seized two Greek oil tankers seized at sea on Friday.

Ayatollah Mohsen Heidari AleKasir attempted to address upset mourners near the site of the 10-story Metropol building, but hundreds of people gathered instead Sunday evening, booing and shouting.

Surrounded by bodyguards, the ayatollah, in his sixties, tried to continue but failed.

“What is happening?” whispered the clerk to a bodyguard, who then leaned over to say something to him.

The cleric then tried to address the crowd again: “Dear ones, please keep calm, as a sign of respect for Abadan, his martyrs and the dear (victims) that the whole Iranian nation cry tonight.”

The crowd responded by shouting, “Shameless!

A live state television broadcast of the event was later cut. Protestors later chanted, “I will kill; I will kill whoever killed my brother!

The Tehran-based daily Hamshahri and the semi-official Fars news agency said protesters attacked the platform where state television had set up its camera, cutting off its broadcast.

Police ordered the crowd not to chant slogans against the Islamic Republic, then ordered them to leave, calling their gathering illegal. Video later showed officers confronting and bludgeoning protesters as clouds of tear gas rose. At least one officer fired what appeared to be a shotgun, though it was unclear whether they were live fire or so-called “beanbag” bullets designed to stun.

It was not immediately clear if anyone was injured or if police made any arrests.

The details in the videos matched known features in Abadan, located some 660 kilometers (410 miles) southwest of the capital, Tehran. Foreign TV channels in Farsi described tear gas and other gunshots.

Independent news gathering remains extremely difficult in Iran. During the unrest, Iran cut off internet and telephone communications to the affected areas, while limiting the movement of journalists inside the country. Reporters Without Borders describes the Islamic Republic as the third worst country in the world to be a journalist, behind North Korea and Eritrea.

Following the tower’s collapse in Abadan last Monday, authorities have acknowledged that the building’s owner and corrupt government officials allowed construction of the Metropol building to continue despite concerns over its poor build quality. Authorities have arrested 13 people as part of an extensive investigation into the disaster, including the town’s mayor.

Rescue teams pulled three more bodies from the rubble on Monday, bringing the death toll in the collapse to 32, according to state news agency IRNA. Authorities fear more people could be trapped under the debris.

The deadly collapse has raised questions about the safety of similar buildings around the country and underscored an ongoing crisis in Iranian construction projects. The collapse reminded many of the 2017 fire and collapse of the iconic Plasco building in Tehran that killed 26 people.

In Tehran, the city’s emergency department has warned that 129 high-rise buildings in the capital remain “unsafe”, based on a 2017 investigation. The country’s attorney general, Mohammad Javad Motazeri, has promised to fix the problem immediately.

Abadan has also experienced disasters in the past. In 1978, an intentional fire at the Cinema Rex – a few blocks from the collapsed building in modern Abadan – killed hundreds. Anger over the fire sparked unrest in oil-rich parts of Iran and contributed to the Islamic Revolution that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Abadan, in Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan, is home to Iran’s Arab minority, who have long complained of being treated like second-class citizens in the Persian nation. Arab separatists in the region have launched attacks on pipelines and security forces in the past. Videos and the Hamshahri newspaper noted that two tribes had come to the city to support the protests.

Meanwhile, one of two Greek tankers seized by Iran on Friday turned on its tracking devices for the first time since the incident. The oil tanker Prudent Warrior gave a satellite position off Bandar Abbas, a major Iranian port, on Monday, according to MarineTraffic.com data analyzed by The Associated Press.

Five armed guards were on board the Prudent Warrior on Monday, although Iranian authorities allow the crew to use their mobile phones, said George Vakirtzis, the chief financial officer of the ship’s director Polembros Shipping.

“This is all political and in the hands of the Greek Foreign Ministry and the Iranian government,” Vakirtzis told the AP.

On Monday evening, Iranian state television broadcast footage of the raid on the Prudent Warrior. The video showed masked Guard soldiers landing a helicopter on the ship, then storming the deck of the civilian ship armed with assault rifles.

The whereabouts of the second ship, the Delta Poseidon, are still unknown.

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