DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Protesters angry over water shortages marched through streets late Thursday in an oil-rich, restive province in southwestern Iran and police apparently fired weapons to disperse the crowds, online videos showed.
It wasn’t immediately clear if anyone had been wounded or arrested in the protests across multiple cities in Khuzestan province, including its capital, Ahvaz.
Videos showed people setting fire to tires, blocking roadways in anger. Anti-riot police in helmets and camouflage fatigues scuffled with demonstrators. Police also fired shotguns in one video, though it wasn’t clear if it was live ammunition or so-called “beanbag rounds” designed to be less lethal.
Those in the videos chanted in Arabic, demanding others to join them. The province is home to ethnic Arabs who complain of discrimination by Iran’s Shiite theocracy.
Khuzestan provincial governor Qassem Soleimani later appeared on Iranian state television Friday to deny any protests took place, even as the country’s judiciary chief sent a delegation to the area to probe the water shortage.
Arab separatists long have operated in Khuzestan, which Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein tried to seize in his 1980s war with Iran. They’ve blown up oil pipelines in the past and have been blamed for attacks including a 2018 assault on a military parade that killed at least 25 people in Ahvaz.
Water worries in the past have sent angry demonstrators into the streets in Iran. The country has faced rolling blackouts for weeks now, in part over what authorities describe as a drought striking the nation. Precipitation had decreased by almost 50% in the last year, leaving dams with dwindling water supplies to fuel the country
The protests in Khuzestan province come as Iran struggles through repeated waves of infections in the coronavirus pandemic and as thousands of workers in its oil industry have launched strikes for better wages and conditions.
Iran’s economy also has struggled under U.S. sanctions since then-President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, crashing the value of the Islamic Republic’s rial currency.