PARIS: Iranian security forces have killed 72 people, including 56 in Kurdish-populated areas, in the past week alone in their crackdown on the protests sparked by Mahsa Amini's death, a rights group said. The protests, sparked in mid-September by the death of Amini, 22, in morality police custody, have cut across ethnicities, social classes and provincial boundaries and turned into the biggest challenge to Iran's clerical leadership since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Authorities have responded with an intensifying crackdown that has sparked an international outcry. Iran has also launched repeated cross-border missile and drone strikes, most recently on Tuesday, against exiled Kurdish opposition groups it accuses of stoking the protests from their bases in neighboring Iraq.

Norway-based group Iran Human Rights (IHR) said that 416 people had been killed by security forces nationwide in Iran itself, including 51 children and 21 women. It said 72 people had lost their lives in the past week alone, including 56 in western Kurdish-populated areas where there has been an upsurge in protest activity in recent days. Several towns in Kurdish-populated western Iran, including Mahabad, Javanroud and Piranshahr, have seen large protests, often starting at the funerals of those previously slain in demonstrations.

Ahead of a special session of the UN Human Rights Council Thursday in Geneva devoted to Iran, UN Human Rights Chief Volker Turk described the situation as "critical" amid a "hardening of the response by security forces", spokesman Jeremy Laurence said. Laurence voiced particular concern at the authorities' "apparent refusal to release the bodies of those killed to their families," and deplored them for making such releases "conditional on the families not speaking to the media or agreeing to give a false narrative on the cause of death".

Internet blackout

The Norway-based Hengaw rights group, which focuses on Iran's Kurdish areas, has accused Iranian security forces of directly firing on protesters with machine guns and shelling residential areas. Hengaw said that five people were killed in Javanroud on Monday alone after thousands gathered for funerals for victims of the crackdown who were killed at the weekend. The group said it had confirmed the killing of 42 Kurdish citizens of Iran in nine cities over the last week, almost all killed by direct fire. Monitors also accused Iran of imposing a nationwide mobile internet blackout on Monday at the height of protest activity.

Monitor Netblocks said Tuesday that the mobile internet had been restored after a "3.5 hour cellular data blackout" on Monday that also coincided with Iran's football team refusing to sing the national anthem at their opening World Cup game. Freedom of expression group Article 19 expressed alarm that "reports of extreme state brutality continue out of Kurdistan alongside nationwide internet disruptions and shutdown". Hengaw meanwhile posted a video of protesters trying to remove birdshot pellets from the body of a protester with a knife, saying people were afraid to go to hospital for fear of being arrested.

'Systematic killing'

The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran on Monday urged the international community to act to prevent a massacre in Kurdish populated areas. "Unless Islamic republic authorities decide the costs of massacring civilians to crush the ongoing protests in Iran are too high, they will continue to slaughter children, women and men with impunity in a desperate attempt to reassert control," said CHRI director Hadi Ghaemi.

According to figures collated by IHR, over half of those killed by the Iranian security forces in the crackdown have died in provinces populated by ethnic minorities. It said 126 people had been killed in the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, largely populated by the Sunni Baluch minority, where the protests had a separate spark but fed into the nationwide anger.

Meanwhile 48 people have been killed in Kurdistan, 45 in West Azerbaijan and 23 in Kermanshah, it said. "Systematic killing of civilian protesters belonging to the Kurdish and Baluch minorities amounts to crimes against humanity," said IHR director Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam. The mainly Sunni Kurds, often described as one of the world's largest stateless peoples, make up one of Iran's most important non-Persian ethnic minority groups and also have significant minorities in neighboring Iraq and Turkey as well as Syria.

New strikes

Meanwhile, Iran launched new cross-border missile and drone strikes against Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups based in northern Iraq whom it accuses of stoking a wave of protests in the Islamic republic. Iran has been shaken by more than two months of civil unrest-which authorities in the country describe as "riots"-sparked by the death of Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest for allegedly breaching the strict dress code for women.

Iran's Tasnim news agency said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had "launched a new round of attacks against terrorist groups based in the Iraqi Kurdistan region", the second such strikes in two days. The report said the headquarters of the Kurdistan Freedom Party "was targeted by missiles and suicide drones" near Kirkuk. An Iraqi Kurdish military official, a local police officer and a party spokesman confirmed the renewed strikes on the region.

"We had taken our precautions and emptied the premises, there were no casualties," Kurdistan Freedom Party spokesman Khalil Nadri said. IRGC General Mohammad Pakpour also confirmed the strikes, saying the Kurdish group had "given support to the recent riots" in northwest Iran. Attacks against "anti-Iranian separatist-terrorist groups in northern Iraq will continue until the threat is eliminated and they are disarmed", the Guards' website quoted Pakpour as saying. - AFP