Crowds clash with cleric as Iran tower collapse kills 32

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – 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 Islamic Republic over rising food prices and other economic difficulties amid the outcome of its nuclear agreement 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 skyrocketed after the Paramilitary Revolutionary Guards on Friday seized two Greek oil tankers seized at sea.

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. Protesters 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 anti-Islamic Republic slogans, 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 it was live fire or so-called “bean bag” rounds 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 to continue at the Metropol building 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 a lingering crisis in Iranian construction projects. The collapse reminded many 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.

In an earlier post on its website, the ship’s manager, Polembros Shipping, said the vessel was still being held by Iranian forces and its crew “are in good health and being well treated.”

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

Follow Jon Gambrell and Isabel DeBre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP and www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.

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