Crowd confronts clergy at Iranian tower collapse killing 32

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Protesters enraged over a building collapse in southwest Iran that killed at least 32 people shouted down an envoy of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sparking a crackdown that saw riot police protesters beat up and fired tear gas, videos analyzed online Monday.

The demonstration directly questioned the Iranian government’s response to the disaster a week ago, when pressure mounted in the Islamic Republic over rising food prices and other economic problems amid the unraveling of its nuclear deal with world powers.

While the protests appear leaderless so far, even Arab tribes in the region appeared to be joining them on Sunday, raising the risk of unrest escalating. Tensions between Tehran and the West have already risen after Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard on Friday seized two Greek oil tankers seized at sea.

Ayatollah Mohsen Heidari AleKasir tried to address angry mourners near the 10-story Metropol building, but hundreds instead rallied Sunday night, booing and shouting.

Surrounded by bodyguards, the ayatollah tried to move on in his sixties but couldn’t.

“What’s happening?” the cleric on stage whispered to a bodyguard, who then leaned forward to speak to him.

The cleric then attempted to address the crowd again: “Dear ones, please remain calm, as a mark of respect to Abadan, his martyrs and loved ones (victims), the entire Iranian nation mourns tonight.”

The crowd responded by shouting, “Shameless!”

A live broadcast of the event on state television was then interrupted. Protesters later chanted: “I will kill; I will kill the one who killed my brother!”

The Tehran-based daily Hamshahri and the semi-official Fars news agency said the protesters attacked the platform where state TV had set up its camera and disrupted the broadcast.

Police ordered the crowd not to chant anti-Islamic Republic slogans, then ordered them to leave the gathering, calling their rally illegal. Video later showed officers confronting and beating protesters with clubs while clouds of tear gas erupted. At least one officer fired what appeared to be a shotgun, although it was not clear whether they were live shots or so-called “bean bag rounds” used to stun.

It was not immediately clear if anyone was injured or if police were making arrests.

The details in the videos matched well-known features of Abadan, which is about 660 kilometers (410 miles) southwest of the capital, Tehran. Foreign Farsi-language television channels reported tear gas and other gunshots being fired.

Independent intelligence gathering remains extremely difficult in Iran. During the unrest, Iran cut internet and telephone communications to affected areas while restricting the movement of journalists within the country. Reporters Without Borders calls the Islamic Republic the third worst country in the world for journalists – behind North Korea and Eritrea.

After the tower collapsed in Abadan last Monday, authorities have admitted that the building’s owner and corrupt government officials allowed construction of the metropolitan building to proceed despite concerns about its poor workmanship. Authorities have arrested 13 people, including the city’s mayor, as part of a full investigation into the disaster.

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 rubble.

The deadly collapse has raised questions about the safety of similar buildings in the country and underscored an ongoing crisis in Iran’s construction projects. The collapse reminded many of the fire and collapse of Tehran’s famous Plasco building in 2017, which killed 26 people.

In Tehran, the city’s emergency department warned that 129 high-rise buildings in the capital were “unsafe” according to a 2017 survey. The country’s Attorney General Mohammad Javad Motazeri has promised to deal with the issue immediately.

Abadan has also experienced disasters in the past. In 1978, a deliberate fire at the Cinema Rex — just a few blocks from the collapsed building in modern-day Abadan — killed hundreds. Anger over the fire sparked unrest in Iran’s oil-rich regions 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 about being treated as second-class citizens in the Persian nation. Arab separatists in the region have in the past launched attacks on pipelines and security forces. Videos and the Hamshahri newspaper noted that two tribes had come to the city to support the protests.

Meanwhile, one of the 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 on Monday gave a satellite position off Bandar Abbas, a major Iranian port, according to MarineTraffic.com data analyzed by The Associated Press.

In a previous statement on its website, ship manager Polembros Shipping said the ship remains detained by Iranian forces and its crew “are in good health and are being treated well.”

It remains unclear where the second ship, the Delta Poseidon, is located.

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

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