Iranian police clash with students: witnesses

Security forces and militiamen clashed with thousands of protesters shouting "death to the dictator" outside Tehran University on Monday, beating them with batons and firing tear gas on a day of nationwide student demonstrations, witnesses said.

Security forces and militiamen clashed with thousands of protesters shouting "death to the dictator" outside Tehran University on Monday, beating them with batons and firing tear gas on a day of nationwide student demonstrations, witnesses said.

The protests were the largest in months, as university students — a bedrock of support for the pro-reform movement — sought to energize the opposition with rallies at campuses across the country. The opposition has been reeling under a fierce crackdown since turmoil erupted over the disputed presidential election in June.

Thousands of riot police, Revolutionary Guard forces and pro-government Basij militiamen flooded the area around Tehran University since the morning, vowing to prevent any unrest from spilling out into the streets.

Banners and signs bearing slogans from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blanketed the tall campus fence, hiding whatever took place inside. Cellphone networks around the universities were shut down, and police and members of the elite Revolutionary Guard surrounded all the university entrances and were checking IDs of anyone entering to prevent opposition activists from joining the students, witnesses said.

The heavy clampdown raised fears of an escalation of violence during Monday's clashes.

"There's anxiety that there will be violence and shooting. I shout slogans and demonstrate but try not to provoke any clash with the security," one Tehran University student, Kouhyar Goudarzi, told The Associated Press in Beirut by telephone. "We are worried."

Clashes erupted when thousands of protesters massed in the streets outside Tehran in support of the students. As they chanted "death to the dictator," riot police fired tear gas and Basij militiamen charged the crowds, the witnesses said.

The plainclothes Basijis beat protesters on the head and shoulders as the crowd scattered, then regrouped on nearby street corners. Nearby, protesters and Basijis pelted each other with stones, the witnesses said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Student marches

Inside the university, thousands of students marched through the campus, many of them wearing surgical masks or scarves over their faces to protect against tear gas. Some wore green wristbands and waved green balloons, the colour of the opposition movement of Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Footage posted on YouTube purported to show thousands protesting inside Tehran University, chanting "death to the dictator" and slogans against the Basij — but no sign of riot police security forces. The authenticity of the footage could not be immediately be confirmed.

Some protesters scuffled with hard-line students who were holding a counter-protest on the campus. The two sides pushed and shoved in a crowd, according to witnesses. The hard-liners, numbering about 2,000, marched through the university, waving pictures of Khamenei and Iranian flags and chanting "death to the hypocrites," a reference to Mousavi and other opposition leaders.

At Amir Kabir, another of several universities around the capital, Basiji militiamen entered the campus and tried to break up a march by several hundred students, witnesses said. The Basijis pushed and shoved the students, dragging some away.

But it appeared that regular riot police and other security forces were largely staying out of any protests inside the campuses, a sign they aimed to bottle them up while focusing on unrest in the streets.

Authorities have arrested well over 100 student leaders in past weeks, looking to blunt Monday's protests.

Journalists working for foreign media organizations were banned from covering Monday's protests. They were told late Saturday by the Culture Ministry that their press cards would be suspended for three days starting Monday.