Monday, April 18, 2005

Arab-Persian divide turns violent in Ahvaz

From The Daily Star

The predominantly Arab city of Ahvaz in Iran was calm Sunday, with anti-riot police cruising the streets after two days of violent demonstrations. At least one demonstrator died and eight others were wounded in the protests, sparked by rumors that Tehran planned to decrease the proportion of Arabs in the oil-rich area near the Iraqi border.

Police patrols cruised Ahvaz's neighborhoods Sunday and guarded the city's banks. Shops were open although the streets were largely empty, with vehicles of anti-riot troops lining the streets, residents said.

"Security is tight in two or three neighborhoods," said Hadi Yunesi, a local journalist. "But the city is calm, shops are open and life has returned to normal."

The fracas started Friday after hundreds of Arab residents of Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan Province, gathered to chant slogans against an alleged government plan to move more non-Arabs into the city.

The protests turned violent as people set fire to banks and police stations. Police made more than 250 arrests.

Iran's official IRNA news agency said a forged letter calling for a plan to relocate non-Arabs to the city to make them the majority population had started the fighting, which it said was limited to Ahvaz.

A local official said the letter was attributed to former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi and dated from when he ran President Mohammad Khatami's office.

But Abtahi denied on his Web site that he was behind the letter, which reportedly said that "Arabs must emigrate, Arab names of towns and villages must become Persian [in Khuzestan]."

"Good friends have told me that people are trying to provoke ethnic violence in the province," Abtahi said on the Web site, adding that neither he nor anyone else had the power to change the ethnic composition of an area.

Al-Jazeera television said the London-based Popular Democratic Front of Ahvazi Arabs in Iran had called for demonstrations in the area "to mark 80 years of Iranian occupation."

Government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh told the student news agency ISNA that "the president has asked supreme national security council and the ministry of intelligence to pursue the case and to hand over those behind the publishing of a forged letter to the justice."

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