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Pressure mounts in Iran after violent crackdown

August 29, 2000, TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- Iran's pro-reform student movement accused the security forces on Tuesday of abetting five days of Islamic vigilante violence that rocked the western city of Khorramabad, leaving one policeman dead.

Scores were injured -- about 35 people were hospitalized -- after hardline gangs armed with knives and clubs broke up a student conference late on Thursday. They later attacked buses ferrying the participants back to their campuses across Iran.

In the latest outburst, mourners at the funeral of the dead police officer assaulted the local governor-general on Tuesday and fractured his skull, Iranian state television said.

It said a number of participants in the funeral procession for Sergeant Ardeshir Karami, 24, broke away and attacked the governor. He was rescued by police but no arrests were made.

The attack on the governor appeared to support allegations by the students and their pro-reform allies that President Mohammad Khatami now faces a serious challenge from hardline forces outside his control.

"The local governor's office said it did not have the power to enforce the law," Ebrahim Shaykh, an organizer for the students' Office to Consolidate Unity (OCU) told a news conference in Tehran. "There was an atmosphere of terror in Khorramabad," he said.

The OCU, which groups campus Islamic associations, was central to the coalition that elected the reformist Khatami in 1997. Since then it has faced relentless pressure from conservatives wary of Iran's long tradition of student activism.

"The official organs of state were openly supporting the attackers," said fellow student leader Mohammad Mehdi Tabatabaei. "The time has come for the system to make clear whether or not it supports these crisis-creating centers."

Influential reformist MP Mohsen Armin, deputy chairman of the committee on national security and foreign policy, said it was "regrettable" that the government could neither protect the students nor control the gangs and their patrons in the security apparatus.

"If the Khatami administration cannot show its power and stand up to the 'pressure groups'... it will definitely not be able to carry out its plans for economic and political reform," Armin told the official IRNA news agency.

The students also used their news conference to appeal directly to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the police, to condemn the latest violence and to punish those responsible.

So far, senior officials have been silent on the unrest, the worst since six days of student protests in July 1999 -- which were also touched off by a bloody vigilante attack.

Witnesses told Reuters the attackers, believed to be members of the hardline Ansar-e Hezbollah group, arrived in cars with state number plates. Their leaders communicated by walkie-talkie.

One witness, a student from Mashhad, told Reuters his bus was attacked with the help of a Revolutionary Guards unit as it passed through Borujerd, en route to Tehran.

"We stopped our bus in the main square for prayers and a rest, when a Revolutionary Guards car spotted us," said Ali Dowlatkhah. "They were waiting for us and they gathered the plainclothes attackers."

Dowlatkhah said the hardliners commandeered the bus and forced the students to run between two lines as they beat them with fists and weapons. He said he was knocked unconscious and treated in a nearby hospital.

The trouble began late last week, when vigilantes blockaded two prominent dissidents inside Khorramabad airport to prevent their appearance before the annual student gathering.

In a series of incidents over several days the attackers, acting with apparent impunity, abducted groups of students, blindfolded them and beat them with fists and whips before dumping them on the outskirts of town.


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