TEHRAN—Riot police attacked hundreds of demonstrators with tear gas and fired live bullets in the air to disperse a rally in central Tehran today, carrying out a threat by the country's most powerful security force to crush any further opposition protests over the disputed presidential election.
Witnesses said helicopters hovered overhead as about 200 protesters gathered at Haft-e-Tir Square. But hundreds of anti-riot police quickly put an end to the demonstration and prevented any gathering, even small groups, at the scene.
Just before the clashes, an Iranian woman who lives in Tehran said there was a heavy police and security presence in another square in central Tehran. She asked not to be identified because she was worried about government reprisals.
"There is a massive, massive, massive police presence," she told the Associated Press in Cairo by telephone. "Their presence was really intimidating."
Iran says at least 17 protesters have been killed in a week of unrest so far after the electoral council declared hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winner of the June 12 election. His main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, charged the election was a fraud and insists he is the true winner. His followers have been staging near-daily rallies, at least one of them drawing a massive crowds of hundreds of thousands.
The country's highest electoral authority, the Guardian Council, acknowledged today that there were voting irregularities in 50 electoral districts, the most serious official admission so far of problems in the election. But the council insisted the problems do not affect the outcome of the vote.
Earlier today, the elite Revolutionary Guard issued its sternest warning so far in the post-election crisis. It warned protesters to "be prepared for a resolution and revolutionary confrontation with the Guards, Basij and other security forces and disciplinary forces" if they continue their near-daily rallies.
The Basij, a plainclothes militia under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, have been used to quell streets protests that erupted after the election result was announced.
The Guard statement ordered demonstrators to "end the sabotage and rioting activities" and said their resistance is a "conspiracy" against Iran. On Sunday, acting joint chief of the armed forces Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid issued a thinly veiled warning to Mousavi, saying "we are determined to confront plots by enemies aimed at creating a rift in the nation.
Mousavi vowed Sunday night to keep up the protests, in defiance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power in Iran. In a sermon to tens of thousands on Friday, Khamenei said demonstrators must stop their street protests or face the consequences and he firmly backed Ahmadinejad's victory.
"The country belongs to you," Mousavi's latest statement said. "Protesting lies and fraud is your right."