Iranian protesters and police had a violent confrontation in southeastern Iran, that killed 19 people in one of the deadliest incidents since antigovernment protests began sweeping Iran two weeks ago.
The confrontation happened as worshippers from Iran’s Sunni minority left Friday prayers at the Makki Grand Mosque in Zahedan, capital of Sistan and Baluchestan province.
Dubai-based Iranian dissident Habibollah Sarbazi, who serves as secretary-general of the Balochistan National Solidarity Party, told VOA Persian that some worshippers joined an antigovernment protest at a nearby police station and threw stones. Police responded by opening fire.
Sarbazi, whose group is one of several fighting for the rights of Iran’s ethnic Baluch minority, said he learned about the confrontation from what he called reliable sources inside Iran. He said those sources told him the protesters were angered in part by allegations earlier this month that a police official at the station had sexually assaulted a teenage girl.
Iranian state media described the protesters as terrorists and separatists and accused them of also firing weapons at police.
Sistan and Baluchestan province in recent years has seen occasional confrontations between Iranian security forces and armed groups including antigovernment Baluch rebels and gangs engaged in smuggling across Iran's borders with neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan.
VOA Persian received and vetted several audience-submitted videos that appeared to show scenes of Friday’s confrontation in Zahedan. VOA cannot independently verify the incidents in the videos as it is barred from reporting inside Iran.
One video filmed from inside the mosque shows worshippers walking to the exits and then running as apparent gunfire is heard outside. Other clips apparently from surrounding streets show a man running and throwing a stone, a police vehicle on fire, and people watching as more gunfire is heard in the distance.
Additional footage shows men apparently bleeding from wounds being carried by others and placed on the ground as onlookers try to render first aid.
Iranian state news agency IRNA quoted Sistan and Baluchestan provincial governor Hossein Modarres Khiabani as saying 19 people were killed and 20 wounded in the confrontation, including police.
Another semiofficial news agency, Tasnim, said one of those killed was the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps intelligence commander of Sistan and Baluchestan province, Seyyed Ali Mousavi.
The Iranian opposition-led Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) told VOA that its sources inside Iran estimated that at least 40 protesters were killed and at least 20 security personnel were wounded.
The Zahedan death tolls, which VOA also cannot independently confirm, were the highest in any reported confrontation in Iran since the start of the latest antigovernment protests Sept. 16.
The protests began in Tehran and spread nationwide days later in response to the death in police custody of 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini.
Iranian morality police detained her for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely as she visited Tehran on Sept. 13. She fell into a coma at a police station and died in a hospital three days later, prompting accusations from family members that she had been beaten. Authorities denied mistreatment and said without evidence that she died of a heart attack.
In the past two weeks, Iranian authorities and rights activists have reported the killings of dozens of people including some security personnel as the government cracks down violently on mostly peaceful nationwide protests.
Initial public expressions of anger at Amini’s death and Iran’s decades-old mandatory public headscarf policy for women quickly evolved into Iranian protesters calling for more freedoms and the death of Iran’s Islamist rulers.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian Service.