Iranian forces battle thousands of pro-reform student protesters

CAIRO — Iranian authorities fought thousands of students with tear gas and batons Monday in fierce clashes on university campuses, the biggest anti-government demonstrations in Iran in months, according to Iranian news accounts and opposition Web sites.

Protests erupted on a dozen campuses and in public squares in Tehran, students and opposition groups said. Despite extraordinary measures to prevent news coverage of the events — including banning foreign journalists, locking down campuses and slowing Internet and cell-phone service — eyewitness accounts and amateur videos flooded the Web from early Monday morning.

Official news agencies, which initially didn’t mention the protests, were forced to acknowledge the unrest by late afternoon, when most international TV news channels were broadcasting student-shot footage. Images of protesters burning posters of the Iranian leadership, waving Iranian tricolor flags without the “Allah” emblem of the Islamic Republic and chanting “death to the dictator” were beamed worldwide.

“Students in Iran gathered to commemorate the National Student Day as reports suggest a number of anti-government protesters have attempted to hijack the occasion,” the state-backed Press TV reported on its Web site several hours after the events.

Pro-government students held a smaller counter-protest at Tehran University, waving pictures of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and chanting “death to the hypocrites,” a reference to opposition leaders, news agencies reported. Skirmishes broke out between the camps, according to the reports.

The opposition movement that snowballed after Iran’s disputed presidential elections in June was keen to show that it could still mobilize thousands of sympathizers despite the severe crackdown that’s kept many would-be protesters off the streets. The crackdown has led to a widely condemned mass trial, the shutting down of newspapers and long prison terms — or even death sentences — for opposition activists.

The Iranian government, eager to leave the election-related turmoil behind, went to great lengths to quash plans for nationwide protests Monday.

Besides shutting down communications and barring news media, the government dispatched thousands of riot police and Basij militiamen to campuses. The gates of Tehran University were covered with pro-government religious posters to prevent onlookers from seeing what was happening inside.

However, Internet-savvy students managed to smuggle out images purportedly taken on the campuses of several universities in Tehran and throughout the country, among them Kerman, Isfahan and Mashad. Dozens of photos showing battered and tear-gassed students showed up online, yet for hours there was no official acknowledgment of the events from state news.