For first time, Iran admits security forces killed protesters

Iranian protesters gather around a fire during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in the capital Tehran

Iran's supreme leader called Wednesday for those detained in recent gasoline price protests to be treated with "Islamic mercy" even after authorities acknowledged government forces shot and killed demonstrators nationwide in unrest that reportedly killed over 200 people.

Iran has faced growing worldwide criticism and pressure over the security force crackdown on demonstrations that spread across at least 100 cities and towns throughout the Islamic Republic in mid-November.

Last week, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry said at least eight people linked to the CIA were arrested during the unrest, which was snuffed out by a security crackdown.

Iran was rocked by protests in November after the government increased gasoline prices by as much as 300% and introduced rationing as the economy struggles under crippling USA sanctions meant to curtail Iranian influence in the Middle East and weaken its leadership.

The state TV report alleged that some of those killed were "rioters who have attacked sensitive or military centers with firearms or knives or have taken hostages in some areas".

"It's something pretty unprecedented event in the history of the human rights violations in the Islamic Republic", Mansoureh Mills, an Iran researcher for Amnesty International, told AP.

Iran has yet to give overall figures for the number of people arrested when security forces moved in to quell the unrest that saw buildings torched and shops looted. In an interview, the city's police chief said "wise" security forces "thwarted" an armed attack by people hiding in a local marsh.

The decision was met with widespread anger in a country where the economy is already reeling as a result of U.S. sanctions that were reinstated a year ago when President Donald Trump abandoned a nuclear deal with Iran.

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It claimed the armed rioters, from an oil-rich area whose mainly Arab population frequently complain of discrimination by the central government, fought with security personnel for hours.

Mahshahr, in Iran's south-western Khuzestan province, is believed to have been among the hardest-hit in the crackdown.

State TV separately acknowledged confronting "rioters" in Tehran, as well as in the cities of Shiraz and Sirjan. It also mentioned the Tehran suburb of Shahriar, where Amnesty International on Monday said there had been "dozens of deaths".

Amnesty International offered no breakdown for the deaths elsewhere in the country, although it said "the real figure is likely to be higher".

Ms Mills said there was a "general environment of fear inside of Iran at the moment".

It also condemned the idea that "families of victims have been threatened and warned not to speak to the media, or not to hold funeral ceremonies for their loved ones".

Iran's United Nations mission in NY called Amnesty's findings "unsubstantiated", without elaborating.

"What they've done was not right but. we must not be strict with these people", he said. His comparison raised the rhetorical stakes surrounding the latest unrest.

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