Some of the wounded tried to crawl away to escape the gunfire. Others bled to death on prayer mats as people tried to drag them to safety.
But the snipers and officers kept pulling their triggers, firing bullet after bullet into men and young boys at a worship area where Friday Prayer had been underway.
The horrific scene unfolded Sept. 30 in Zahedan, a city in southeastern Iran that is home to the ethnic Baluch minority, after a small group of worshippers emerged from the Great Mosalla prayer complex to confront security forces posted at a police station across the street.
The protesters chanted anti-government slogans and threw rocks at the officers, prompting the security forces to fire indiscriminately into the crowd, according to witnesses. As the demonstrators scattered, the gunshots stalked their retreat back toward the complex, where thousands were still praying.
“It was a massacre I had only seen in movies,” said Jamshid, 28, a worshipper, who was reached by phone and identified himself only by his first name to avoid reprisals. “They started shooting as people still had their heads bowed in prayer.” Young men threw themselves in front of children and older people to shield them from the bullets, Jamshid said. “People had nowhere to go.”
The massacre, called “Bloody Friday” by residents, represents the most lethal government action since a crackdown began against nationwide demonstrations a month ago. Some 66 to 96 people were killed over the course of the next several hours, according to local and international human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
Videos obtained and analyzed by The New York Times show in detail an unbridled response by the security forces as the chaotic and bloody scene unfolded. In one video, men who appear to be snipers in plainclothes are seen on the police station’s roof firing into the street.
The unrest in the ethnic Baluch region also poses yet another serious challenge for the clerics in Tehran, Iran, who have been scrambling to contain the most serious anti-government protests seen in years.
The nationwide protests started in September after a young woman, Mahsa Amini, died in police custody after being arrested on an accusation of violating the government’s law on headscarves. But the demonstrations expanded to include broader calls for an end to rule by the Islamic Republic.
Anger in Zahedan boiled over after accusations surfaced that a Baluch teenager had been raped by a police officer in another city, fueling long-simmering discontent among the Baluch minority, predominantly Sunni Muslims over the rule of Shiite authorities in Tehran.
Zahedan is the capital of Sistan-Baluchestan, an arid province in the southeastern corner of the country and one of the least developed and most unstable parts of Iran.
Only now, two weeks after the crackdown — which has been largely concealed from Iranians by an internet blackout in the country — have details corroborating the scope of the killings in Zahedan started to emerge.
The Times spoke with 10 residents from Zahedan, including witnesses and activists; family members of the victims; and a medic who helped treat more than 150 people for wounds. All spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of retribution from the government. They echoed the accusation that security forces fired indiscriminately on unarmed protesters and civilians with bullets and tear gas. Helicopters were also deployed, according to witnesses.
Dozens of videos obtained, reviewed and verified by the Times support key parts of the narrative put forward by witnesses and activists.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, an elite branch of the armed forces, has confirmed that its forces were present in Zahedan and that six of its members were killed that day, including its regional intelligence chief, Col. Ali Mousavi, and officers from the feared Basij militia. They have denied firing on civilians.
Witnesses said that a number of Iranian security officers were killed but that they died later during street clashes.
Several days after the attack, Iran’s foreign minister said in a statement referring to Zahedan that “organized elements” had disrupted peaceful protests “with the aim of turning the protests into violence, chaos and a massacre of innocent civilians and police forces.”
According to residents, the violence Sept. 30 was preceded by a smaller demonstration two days earlier, in another city in the same province, Chabahar. The day before the shootings in Zahedan, protesters began calling for a “broad uprising” in “all of the towns of Baluchestan” as an act of “solidarity with Kurdistan and in protest of the rape of the Baluch girl,” according to a poster advertising the demonstrations. The Kurdistan region of Iran has also seen major protests in recent weeks and has been subject to attacks by government forces.
“It was really the synergy of both issues that brought people into the streets,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director for the Center for Human Rights in Iran, an independent organization based in New York. “If anything, this very serious local grievance about the rape of a teenage girl made their passions stronger.”
By 1 p.m., thousands of people had filed into the Great Mosalla, across the street from the city’s police headquarters.
The mood was peaceful, according to Molavi Abdul Hamid, the Sunni imam of the prayer service, who provided a detailed account of the day in a video statement he posted on the Telegram messaging app. In his sermon, Hamid said he advised all worshippers to “maintain peace” and “control their emotions” until an investigation into the rape accusation had been completed.
But according to the cleric and two other witnesses, a group of 10 to 15 young worshippers left the complex before prayers had concluded to gather outside the police station.
A video verified by the Times shows some of the protesters throwing rocks at the police station, where security forces stood on the roof, as gunshots are heard. Witnesses said that some protesters hurled Molotov cocktails.
The forces responded with gunfire, witnesses said.
One video verified by the Times shows two men who appear to be in uniform standing alongside another man on the roof of the police station firing what seems to be a pump-action shotgun in the direction of the mosque.
One verified video shows a group of young men carrying the injured inside the Mosalla complex. Other verified videos show that at least some of the injured were brought in from the street outside the police station.
“They thought it would be a safe area — the most sacred place in the city,” said one resident, a lecturer, who knew students who died that day. “They did not know they were walking back into a deathtrap.”
Another video from inside the mosque shows worshippers, still bent in prayer, as semi-automatic rifle and assault rifle fire are heard in the background, according to a Times analysis and witnesses.
“People started carrying in bodies as attendees were still crouching on their prayer mats,” said Jamshid, the worshipper. Within minutes, he said, the service devolved into a scene of terror as security forces shot bullets and tear gas into the prayer complex.
Survivors began piling bodies into cars and on prayer mats, which were used as stretchers, only to be targeted in the streets, witnesses said.
“Most of these bullets were shot at the heads and hearts of the worshippers, which turns out to have been done by snipers,” Hamid, the cleric, said in his video statement.
Many managed to escape to the city’s main mosque, the Makki, a half-mile away. A medic who identified himself as Ahmed said by telephone that he and a nurse treated more than 100 casualties there.
“As soon as I heard the gunshots, I wanted to help,” Ahmed said. He estimated that hundreds of people unloaded dead and injured at the front gate. “It was total chaos,” he said. “Many were bleeding or shouting, ‘This person is dying; this one is hit in the belly.’”
Many victims avoided going to the hospital, Ahmed said, for fear that local security forces would arrest them. That left him and the medic working alone, overwhelmed in the carnage.
“We did not know who to prioritize first,” he said. “People started dying before my eyes.”
Ahmed said that 30 dead bodies, including of children, were piled in a children’s prayer room in the Makki mosque. People in critical condition were carried to the basement, which he turned into a makeshift emergency ward. Sheets and shawls were used to stanch the gunshot wounds, said Ahmed, who provided videos and images from his phone of the injured.
Among those severely wounded was Ahmed’s neighbor, 26, a newlywed whose wife was expecting a son. “His liver was falling from his body,” Ahmed said. “I had never sewn someone before. I was not fast enough. I just held his hand and told him to not fall asleep.” The neighbor died soon after.
As the day went on, more civilians swarmed into the streets as they became aware of the violence taking place in the city.
They were met with Persian-speaking security forces, in traditional Baluch clothing, who emerged from cars before firing on the protesters, some of whom fought back with Molotov cocktails and bullets, according to witnesses. Most of the clashes took place on a street near the Makki mosque where hundreds had gathered.
Rafeh Naroohi, 25, who worked in the bazaar, was killed in the violence that day, his family said. They found him with multiple shots to the chest.
“He didn’t do anything wrong,” a family member said, describing him as good-natured and charming. “He was completely innocent.”
Experts say that the especially deadly nature of the government crackdown is similar to violence seen in previous years, when security forces targeted minority groups during nationwide waves of unrest.
“This shooting to kill — it’s the same playbook,” said Ghaemi, pointing to how the Revolutionary Guard executed a similarly brutal crackdown in 2019, when they surrounded, shot and killed 40 to 100 demonstrators seeking refuge in a marsh in the southwestern city of Mahshahr.
“When there is a national uprising,” he said, “they carry out the most killings in ethnic minority areas to give the semblance of defending the homeland.”
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Original News : https://news.yahoo.com/massacre-security-forces-cracked-down-191615865.html