Iranian opposition chiefs were attacked on Friday as their supporters battled riot police, with tens of thousands mounting the first protest in two months against the re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Main opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi had to abandon plans to take part after an angry crowd of hardliners shouting “Death to the hypocrite Mousavi” attacked his car, the official IRNA news agency said.
Former president Mohammad Khatami, a key Mousavi supporter whose 1997-2005 term saw a mild thaw in relations with the West, was also assaulted before being rescued by riot police, reformist website parlemannews.ir said.
“During the scuffle, his turban fell off and they wanted to beat him but supporters resisted them and the riot police promptly intervened,” it said.
Khatami’s brother, Mohammad Reza, said he was uninjured.
“Some people shouted slogans against him,” he told AFP. “He is home now. He is not hurt and he is fine.”
As Ahmadinejad gave the keynote speech at Tehran University, renewing comments about Israel and the “myth” of the Holocaust that have sparked an international outcry, tens of thousands chanted “Death to the dictator” in nearby streets, witnesses said.
Protesters defied dire warnings against demonstrating during Iran’s annual mass display of solidarity with the Palestinians.
Shouting slogans in support of Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s main challenger in the June 12 election, they gathered in major squares around the capital before heading to the university.
Supporters of the regime among the more than 100,000 people who joined the Quds (Jerusalem) Day rally mounted counter-demonstrations, leading to repeated scuffles, the witnesses said.
Baton-wielding riot police beat protesters who were pelting them with stones in central Haft-e Tir Square, they told AFP.
Police fired tear gas to disperse the demonstrators who chanted: “Torture and rape are not effective any more,” one witness said.
That was a reference to opposition allegations of abuses against some of the more than 4,000 activists and reformist politicians detained during the post-election disturbances.
The attacks on Mousavi and Khatami drew criticism both at home and abroad.
“I don’t accept such aggressions and illegal acts. I don’t approve of them,” deputy parliament speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar said.
French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said Paris is “highly concerned by reports of violence committed against leaders of the Iranian opposition.”
There were also reports of clashes in other cities, as unrest over the presidential election flared again for the first time since July 19 in a sign of the seriousness of the challenge facing the regime.
Members of the Basij Islamic militia attacked and seized demonstrators in both Tabriz in the northwest and Isfahan south of the capital, the mowjcamp.com opposition website said.
State television played down the unrest.
“A few demonstrators protested against Ahmadinejad but they were drowned in the massive crowds of people expressing solidarity with the Palestinians,” it said.
The protests came despite a threat from the elite Revolutionary Guards Corps to crush any renewed attempt to contest the official election results giving Ahmadinejad a landslide victory.
In his address, the hardline president again described the mass extermination of Jews during World War II as a “myth” and said Israel was heading for collapse.
“They (Western powers) launched the myth of the Holocaust. They lied, they put on a show and then they support the Jews,” he said to chants of “Death to Israel” from his supporters among the crowd.
“The pretext for establishing the Zionist regime is a lie … a lie which relies on an unreliable claim, a mythical claim, and the occupation of Palestine has nothing to do with the Holocaust.
“This regime’s days are numbered and it is on its way to collapse. This regime is dying.”
Britain, France, Germany and the United States condemned Ahmadinejad’s comments.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called them “abhorrent as well as ignorant,” while White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that denying the Holocaust was “baseless, ignorant and hateful.”
In Paris, Valero called the Iranian president’s remarks “unacceptable and shocking,” and in Berlin German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Ahmadinejad shamed Iran.
“With his intolerable tirades, he shames his country,” and his “anti-Semitism … must be collectively condemned,” he said.