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Islamic vigilantes take control of Tehran square

by Ali Raiss-Tousi

TEHRAN, July 8 (Reuters) - Hardline Islamic vigilantes armed with wooden staves and lengths of electric cable pushed thousands of pro-reform demonstrators from central Tehran's Revolution Square on Saturday.

Several hundred vigilantes, thought to be members of the shadowy Ansar-e Hezbollah, or Friends of the Party of God, shouted their allegiance to Iran's supreme clerical ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as they took control. Reinforcements appeared on motorbikes as the vigilantes sealed off the square and drove protesters and onlookers westward after an angry demonstration in memory of last year's bloody suppression of a pro-democracy rally.

Witnesses reported a series of scuffles but no new clashes.

The windows of several shops and banks were broken as the crowd retreated, but there were no reports of looting.

Earlier, riot police charged the crowd and fired teargas grenades at demonstrators before taking up positions between the vigilantes and a much larger crowd of students, supporters and curious spectators.

Police vans moved in to pick up groups of youngsters outside the nearby gates of Tehran University, traditionally a hotbed of political protest.

"Khatami, Khatami, this is the final notice," some of the crowd in Revolution Square chanted, in a warning addressed to moderate President Mohammad Khatami, who had called for calm ahead of the anniversary.

Others shouted angry slogans attacking top officials of the Islamic Republic, including Khamenei.

VIGILANTES ATTACKED WITH BROKEN BOTTLES

The Islamic vigilantes took advantage of initial chaos to break through police lines and attack the crowd with broken bottles, badly injuring several people before the rivals were separated.

Private cars rushed to the scene to carry the injured to hospital. Witnesses saw flesh hanging from the face of one of the demonstrators.

Journalists in the southern city of Shiraz said a commemoration at a medical college spilled into the streets in support of a number of pro-reform clerics who have been jailed for their political and religious beliefs.

The protesters there denounced Iran's hardline judiciary before dispersing in the face of police demands. There were no reports of scuffles or other violence.

The violence in Tehran came as students and their supporters held rallies to protest a July 8, 1999 attack by police and hardline vigilantes on a campus demonstration in favour of freedom of the press.

That attack, in which authorities say one person was killed, touched off six days of the worst social unrest since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Saturday's unrest was the worst in the capital in a year.

An old man, watching the turmoil, blamed increasingly harsh economic conditions for the explosion of frustration.

"Inflation is really taking its toll on the people. All the officials do is lie to the people," he said.

But a young protester said bread-and-butter issues were beside the point.

"Freedom and democracy, that's what we want -- more than something to eat and a place to live."