DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Friday that people could not be blamed for protesting over water shortages, and called on officials to deal with the crisis.
People have taken to the street for more than a week to vent their anger about the shortages, which have come during Iran’s worst drought in half a century and as the economy creaks under U.S. sanctions and COVID-19.
Overnight the unrest spread from the oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan to the town of Aligudarz where one youth was shot dead and seven were injured, a police official said, blaming “counter-revolutionaries” for the violence.
“The people showed their displeasure, but we cannot really blame the people because the issue of water is not a small one especially in Khuzestan’s hot climate,” Khamenei said in reference to the protests, according to state TV.
“Now, thank God, all the various agencies, governmental and non-governmental, are working (to resolve the water crisis) and should continue with all seriousness,” Khamenei added.
Demonstrators in Aligudarz, in Lorestan province, marched to show solidarity for protesters in neighbouring Khuzestan late on Thursday, the eighth night of protests. Videos on social media showed them chanting slogans against Khamenei.
The semi-official Fars news agency quoted a police official as saying several people were detained after the violence in Aligudarz, with four police officers shot and injured.
At least one policeman and three young men had been shot dead in earlier protests, according to Iranian officials who blamed “rioters” for the deaths.
Amnesty International said, though, that at least eight people had been killed during the unrest.
“Video footage verified by Amnesty … and consistent accounts from the ground indicate security forces used deadly automatic weapons, shotguns with inherently indiscriminate ammunition, and tear gas to disperse protesters,” it said.
Reuters has not reviewed the footage.
U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said she was “extremely concerned about the deaths and injuries that have occurred over the past week, as well as the widespread arrests and detention”.
“The impact of the devastating water crisis on life, health and prosperity of the people of Khuzestan should be the focus of the government’s attention, not the protests carried out by people driven to desperation by years of neglect,” she said.
Internet watchdog NetBlocks reported outages of mobile web access in Khuzestan, a curb often imposed by authorities during protests.
The United States urged Iran to “allow citizens to exercise their universal right to freedom of expression, as well as freely access information online,” said State Department spokesperson Jalina Porter.
Iran’s deep drought has affected households, devastated agriculture and livestock farming, and led to power blackouts.
The country’s economy has been blighted by sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Donald Trump, and the pandemic. Workers, including thousands in the important energy sector, and pensioners have protested for months amid discontent over mismanagement, unemployment and inflation.
(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Simon Lewis in Washington; Editing by Toby Chopra, Pravin Char and Giles Elgood)