Iran on Thursday announced more arrests in the post-election turmoil, detaining seven alleged provocateurs of violence it says were linked to Iranian exiles. The move underlines authorities' drive to portray protests as the work of outsiders rather than a reflection of widespread popular dismay.
The arrests continue a heavy crackdown that has squashed the mass protests that erupted over the disputed June 12 presidential vote. Iran's top police chief has said 20 people were killed in violence during the protests, and that 1,032 people were detained.
In another move to push the government's depiction of the protests, the semi-official Fars news agency reported Thursday that families of the "innocent victims" of bloodshed during demonstrations would receive government compensation. Fars said "terrorists infiltrated among protesters to foment unrest," causing the violence.
There was no word on who would receive compensation and how much — but it appeared to refer to eight members of the Basij who were reportedly killed. The Basij is a paramilitary militia that had a prominent role in putting down the protests, with witnesses reporting Basijis beating or shooting at marchers.
The compensation is to come from the state-funded Martyrs' Foundation, a body that helps families of those who died in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, in which more than a million people from the two countries were killed and far more wounded. Providing funds to dead Basijis would raise them to the same level of national heroism as the war dead.
Iran has been eager to depict the unprecedented wave of protests as inspired by outsiders, apparently looking to boost the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was announced as a landslide victor over his pro-reform opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi. Mousavi insists he is the winner, calling the official results fraudulent.
The newly announced arrests were of seven members of "anti-government groups" who were "provoking unrest"in Tehran and the northwestern city of Qazvin, the state-run satellite channel Press TV reported.
The Qazvin regional intelligence department said the suspects had confessed to connections with groups including the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or People's Mujahedeen, the armed wing of a France-based opposition group, the National Resistance Council of Iran. The Mujahedeen-e-Khalq has been listed as a terrorist group by the United States, and Iran has repeatedly blamed it for inciting post-election unrest.
Meanwhile, the official tally of deaths among Iranian protesters during the street demonstrations following the vote was upped from 17 to 20, police chief Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam announced, according to the state-run newspaper Iran.
Police detained 1,032 people, and most have been released, said Ahmadi Moghaddam, adding that 500 police forces were injured in the clashes. He did not specify whether the numbers included those detained by the Basij, who are connected to Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, not the police.
The Basij on Wednesday formally requested that Mousavi be investigated for the post-election protests, saying he "supervised or assisted in punishable acts." A hard-line lawmaker on parliament's legal committee, Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, echoed that call, saying Mousavi had continued his calls for protests even after Iran's supreme leader had ordered a halt to street unrest.
Despite the crackdown, which has halted protests since Sunday, Mousavi appears driven to maintain his opposition and even to raise the stakes. In a challenging statement on Wednesday, he said he considered the government illegitimate and demanded political prisoners be released.
"A majority of the people — including me — do not accept its political legitimacy," he said of the regime, adding: "There's a danger ahead. A ruling system which relied on people's trust for 30 years cannot replace this trust with security forces overnight."
Iran's ruling clerics have called the elections "pure" and "healthy" following Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's declaration that the results would stand.
Iran's government also faces pressure from the West, sharpened after the detention last week of several Iranians employed by the British Embassy. Iranian state television reported all but one of those detained has been released.
The European Union on Thursday called on Iran to release all the employees, but it held off on a British request that all 27 EU ambassadors be withdrawn from Tehran. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said it was too early to recall the envoys and the EU is "awaiting how the Iranian authorities will react." He said "more than one" of the employees remained in detention.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday called Thursday for next week's Group of Eight summit to send a "strong message of unity" in support of Iranians' human rights, and said efforts to address concerns over Tehran's nuclear ambitions must remain on track.
But her call stopped short of Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi's statement this week that the G-8 nations would consider sanctions against Iran.
G-8 member Russia rejected the possibility of sanctions.
"Such a step would trigger unwelcome events inside and outside the country," Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told a briefing in Moscow. Russia has close relations with Iran, including building the nuclear power plant at the centre of speculation that Iran aims to develop nuclear weapons, and President Dmitry Medvedev smilingly welcomed Ahmadinejad at a security summit in Russia four days after the election.
Heintz reported from Cairo. Associated Press Writer Shaya Tayefe Mohajer in Cairo and Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.