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Protests in Iran over woman’s death reach important oil industry

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Workers at refineries critical to Iran’s oil and natural gas production protested the death of a 22-year-old woman Monday, videos appeared to show, escalating the crisis facing Tehran.

The demonstrations in Abadan and Asaluyeh mark the first time that turmoil surrounding Mahsa Amini’s death has threatened industry crucial to the coffers of Iran’s long-sanctioned theocratic government.

While it remains unclear whether other workers will follow suit, protests come as demonstrations rage in cities and towns across Iran over Amini’s death on September 16 following her arrest by the country’s vice squad in Tehran. Early Monday, the sound of apparent gunshots and explosions echoed through the streets of a city in western Iran, as security forces reportedly killed a man in a nearby village, activists said.

The Iranian government maintains that Amini was not assaulted, but her family says her body showed bruising and other signs of beatings. Later videos show security forces beating and pushing female protesters, including women who have torn off their mandatory headscarf or hijab.

Videos have surfaced online from the capital Tehran and elsewhere, despite authorities disrupting the internet. Videos on Monday showed college and high school students demonstrating and singing, with some women and girls marching through the streets without headscarves as protests enter a fourth week. The demonstrations represent one of the biggest challenges facing Iran’s theocracy since the 2009 Green Movement protests.

Online videos analyzed by The Associated Press showed dozens of workers gathering at the refineries in Asaluyeh, some 925 kilometers (575 miles) south of Tehran, on the Persian Gulf. The huge complex extracts natural gas from the huge offshore natural gas field that Iran shares with Qatar.

In one video, the assembled workers – some with their faces covered – chant “shamelessly” and “death to the dictator”. The chants were typical of protests related to Amini’s death.

“This is the bloody year that Seyyed Ali will be overthrown,” the protesters chanted, refusing to use the title ayatollah to refer to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. An ayatollah is a high-ranking Shia cleric.

The details in the videos match each and known features of the facility compared to satellite photos taken Sunday.

Iran acknowledged no disruption at the facility, although the semi-official Tasnim news agency described the incident as a salary dispute. Iran is one of the world’s largest natural gas suppliers, just behind the US and Russia.

In Abadan, a city that was once home to the world’s largest oil refinery, videos also showed workers walking away from work. The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran quoted a statement allegedly from the Contractual Oil Workers Protest Organizing Council calling for a strike over “the repression and killings.”

“We declare that now is the time for widespread protests and to prepare for nationwide and grueling strikes,” the statement said. “This is the beginning of the road and we will continue our protests day after day together with the entire nation.”

The violence early Monday in western Iran took place in Sanandaj, the capital of Iran’s Kurdistan province, as well as in the village of Salas Babajani near the border with Iraq, according to a Kurdish group called the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights. Amini was Kurdish and her death has been felt especially in the Kurdish region of Iran, where demonstrations began at her funeral on September 17.

Hengaw posted images describing it as smoke rising in a neighborhood in Sanandaj, with what sounded like rapid gunfire echoing across the night sky. People’s screams could be heard.

There was no immediate report on whether people had been injured in the violence. Hengaw later posted a video online of what appeared to be collected rifle and shotgun cases, as well as used tear gas bottles.

Authorities made no immediate statement about the violence early Monday in Sanandaj, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) west of Tehran. Esmail Zarei Kousha, the governor of Iran’s Kurdistan province, claimed without providing evidence that unknown groups had “plowed a plot to murder young people in the streets,” the semi-official Fars news agency reported Monday.

Kousha also accused these unnamed groups that day of shooting a young man in the head and killing him — an attack that activists blatantly blame Iran’s security forces. They say Iranian troops opened fire after the man honked at them with his car horn. Honking has become one of the ways activists express civil disobedience – a move that has seen riot police smashing the windshields of passing vehicles in other videos.

In the village of Salas Babajani, about 100 kilometers southwest of Sanandaj, Iranian security forces repeatedly shot a 22-year-old man who was protesting there and later died of his injuries, Hengaw said. It said others were injured in the shooting.

It is still unclear how many people have died so far. State television last suggested that at least 41 people had died in the demonstrations on September 24. Since then, there has been no update from the Iranian government.

An Oslo-based group, Iran Human Rights, estimates that at least 185 people have been killed. This includes an estimated 90 people killed by security forces in the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan during demonstrations against a police officer charged with rape in a separate case. Iranian authorities have described the Zahedan violence involving unnamed separatists, without providing details or evidence.

Meanwhile, a prison riot has hit the town of Rasht, killing several inmates, a prosecutor said. It was not immediately clear whether the rioting at Lakan Prison was related to the ongoing protests, although Rasht has seen heavy demonstrations in recent weeks since Amini’s death.

The semi-official Mehr news agency quoted Gilan Provincial Prosecutor Mehdi Fallah Miri as saying: “Some inmates died from their injuries when the electricity (in the prison) was cut off because of the damage.” He also claimed that inmates refused to allow authorities access to the injured.

Miri described the riot as the outbreak of a wing of a prison where death penalty inmates live.

Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

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