DUBAI - Iranian security forces used tear gas, batons and apparently birdshot on Friday during clashes with protesters demonstrating in Isfahan in support of farmers angry over water shortages, according to Iranian news agencies and social media posts.
Videos posted on social media showed officers in the central Iranian city apparently opening fire with birdshot at protesters in the dried riverbed of the Zayandehrud River, the largest river in the drought-stricken region, and nearby streets.
A massive protest, that drew farmers and others from across Isfahan province, was the biggest since demonstrations over the water crisis started on Nov. 9.
The semiofficial news agency Fars said demonstrators threw rocks and set fire to a police motorcycle and an ambulance.
'They are in groups of 40-50 on streets around Khaju Bridge and are estimated at around 300,' Fars said.
State TV showed police firing teargas at demonstrators gathered in the dried riverbed. A video posted on social media showed protesters chanting back: 'Shame on you!'
Social media videos showed several injured protesters, at least one with what looked like birdshot pellet wounds. There were no confirmed reports on the number of injured, and Reuters could not independently verify the videos.
Overnight, farmers holding a two-week-long peaceful sit-in to protest water shortages in the region were dispersed by unidentified men who set fire to their tents. Social media posts said they were security forces while state media called them 'thugs.'
State media earlier said farmers had agreed to leave after reaching a deal with authorities.
The farmers in Isfahan province have for years protested the diversion of water from the Zayandehrud to supply other areas, leaving their farms dry and threatening their livelihoods. A pipeline carrying water to Yazd province has been repeatedly damaged, according to Iranian media.
In July, protests broke out over water shortages in the oil-producing southwest, with the U.N. human rights chief criticizing the fatal shooting of protesters. Tehran rejected the criticism.
Mobile internet appeared to have been blocked in protest-affected neighborhoods of Isfahan, a resident told Reuters, in an apparent effort to stop the spread of videos of the clashes.
Iran has blamed its worst drought in 50 years for the water shortages, while critics also point to mismanagement.
With an economy crippled by U.S. sanctions, Iran has been the Middle East's worst-hit country in the COVID-19 pandemic. The drought has forced Iran to import a record volume of wheat.