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Religious Leader’s Death Sparks Unrest in Iran

December 7, 1996

BAKHTARAN, Iran (AP) _ Armed riot police patrolled the streets of a troubled neighborhood in this western Iranian city today, where clashes erupted earlier this week over the death of a Sunni religious leader.

Shops were closed and residents stayed indoors, bringing an eerie calm to the Javanshir district. Dozens of helmeted riot guards with machine guns stood watch on every street corner.

Residents of this city of 700,000 people, 280 miles southwest of Tehran, were hesitant to talk about the unrest that erupted Wednesday. Most people gave vague reports about the trouble, but no details.

Violence erupted at a funeral after mourners accused the government of assassinating Mohammad Rabii, a Sunni Muslim prayer leader. Officials said the 64-year-old Rabii died of a heart attack Tuesday and that his body was found beside his car.

Residents said a security officer _ and possibly others _ were killed at the funeral on Wednesday. The circumstances surrounding the death or deaths were not clear.

Iran’s main exile opposition group, the Iraq-based Mujahedeen Khalq, said nine people had been killed and 60 wounded in rioting starting Wednesday in the city of Bakhtaran, capital of the province of the same name. It said dozens of protesters were killed and hundreds wounded in other cities in the province.

Another exile opposition group, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, reported violence in several cities.

The opposition reports could not be independently confirmed.

The official Tehran radio said Thursday that several people were arrested after unrest during Rabii’s funeral, but it gave no reports of people killed.

Rabii was a leader of the Sunni Muslim sect, a minority in Iran which is predominantly Shiite Muslim. He also worked for the state-run radio and television network.

Sunnis are tolerated by Iran’s clerical Shiite government, but they are viewed with suspicion. The rift between the two sects dates back to shortly after the death in 632 A.D. of Mohammed, Islam’s prophet.

Update hourly