IRAN: Explosions and heavy security amid celebrations of ancient fire festival
Firecrackers and homemade explosives were heard throughout the Iranian capital on Tuesday night as Iranians took to the streets in celebration of Chaharshanbeh Souri, an ancient Zoroastrian fire festival held ahead of the Persian New Year, amid a heavy police and security presence.
Opposition supporters had vowed to turn the event this year into a protest against the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And security forces took no chances.
On the streets of Tehran, armed security forces were out in full force, especially in main squares where protests had taken place earlier. Droves of helmeted "special guards" on motorcycles rumbled past stunned pedestrians. Plainclothes security officials oversaw checkpoints, pulling over cars filled with young people. Police officers on sidewalks could be seen ordering kids to open up their rucksacks.
Although no major clashes were reported between celebrators and security troops, skirmishes between helmeted and uniformed security forces and revelers broke out on Gisha Street, in the capital's central west.
Tehran's courts are staying open extra late Tuesday night with the ongoing festivities, the conservative Iranian news agency Mehr reported. There have been reports of arrests.
Huge crowds could be seen gathering in the north Tehran neighborhood of Saadat Abad, mostly young people setting off ear-splitting fireworks. Explosions and occasional sirens could be heard up until midnight, the smoke of bonfires filling an unseasonably warm night.
But the overall tone of the occasion was festive, not political. On side streets families could be seen surrounding small bonfires, in some cases leaping over them, as is the tradition. Teens could be seen dancing to the latest blingy Persian pop tune, "Soosan Khanoom," by the underground but wildly popular band Barobax."My beloved Soosan, come gently and bit by bit to my bosom," the song goes.
As fireworks were set off at a steady pace in the Iranian capital, Iran's firefighting organization had by the late evening hours reported 66 "firework incidents" in greater Tehran. The incidents injured three people, reported Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency.
But a report by the state-run Iranian news agency ISNA put the number of people taken to the hospital as a result of the celebrations at 32.
Meanwhile, Fars News said the number of calls to Tehran's fire service was up to 164 in the late evening hours.
Celebrations took place outside the capital, as well. In the town of Horand in Iran's Eastern Azerbaijan province, nocturnal revelers participated in outdoor activities and games that were organized as part of the celebrations, reported Iran's Mehr News Agency in a lengthy photo essay.
Reports and accounts from the festivities also surged on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook."The sun hasn't gone down yet and explosives are heard repeatedly already," wrote Twitter user fahimn.
Another message on the same network from user Azadi2011 said that car alarms were "going off everywhere because of the fire cracker[s]."
Video footage from the celebrations from around the country is trickling in. The YouTube video below, said to be from Tuesday night's events, shows celebrators riding in cars in the Iranian city of Shiraz and bonfires being lit on the side of the road. Loud noises from fireworks being set off can be heard in the background.
And in this video, supposedly from the celebrations in Iran's agricultural province of Ardebil, crowds of people are heard cheering loudly as smoky homemade explosives are set off in the street.
Several videos -- such as the one below, said to be showing people chanting anti-government slogans in Tehran -- have also been posted on the Internet, suggesting that opposition protesters were doing more than just lighting bonfires and setting off firecrackers in the streets.
Photos and videos: Scenes of Chaharshanbeh Souri celebrations in Iran's Eastern Azerbaijan province. Credit: Mehr News Agency and YouTube