TEHRAN: Iran vowed yesterday to severely punish "mercenaries" arrested over a wave of street unrest sparked by a fuel price hike, as much of the country came back online after a week-long internet blackout. Authorities say calm has been restored and have announced plans to hold a pro-government demonstration to condemn the "rioters" at Tehran's Enghelab Square on Monday afternoon.

The protests first flared on November 15, hours after a surprise announcement that petrol prices were being raised by as much as 200 percent with immediate effect. Highways were blocked, banks and petrol stations set on fire and shops looted as the demonstrations turned violent and spread to dozens of urban centers across the country.

Citing law enforcement officials, Fars news agency said yesterday that 180 ringleaders had been arrested over the street violence, which it has blamed on enemies abroad. "We have arrested all stooges and mercenaries who have explicitly made confessions that they have been mercenaries of America, of Monafeghin and others," said Rear-Admiral Ali Fadavi, deputy commander in chief of the Revolutionary Guards. Monafeghin is a term Iran uses to refer to the People's Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK) opposition in exile group, which it considers a "terrorist" cult.

The government said the fuel price hike would allow it to provide welfare payments to the needy in Iran, where many have struggled to make ends meet since the US reimposed sanctions after withdrawing from a landmark nuclear deal. Officials have confirmed five deaths in the unrest, while Amnesty International said more than 100 demonstrators were believed to have been killed and the real toll could be as high as 200.

'Coalition of evil'

Fadavi said about protest leaders that "we have arrested all of them and, God willing, the judiciary will give them maximum punishments". "We will certainly respond in accordance to the viciousness carried out by them," he told a news conference in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guards deputy commander was speaking at a gathering of female members of the Basij, a militia loyal to Iran's establishment.

On Friday, a Basij commander said the unrest sparked by the fuel price hike amounted to a "world war" against Iran that had been thwarted. Brigadier General Salar Abnoosh said interrogations had revealed that a "coalition of evil" of Israel, the United States and Saudi Arabia was behind the "sedition", according to ISNA news agency. The total number of people arrested over the unrest remained unclear, but the UN human rights office put it at more than 1,000 on Tuesday.

Mobile networks offline
At the height of the unrest, a near-total internet blockout was imposed in a step seen as aimed at curbing the spread of videos of the violence. The outage had helped to "disrupt the complicated" plans by Iran's enemies, Abnoosh said on Friday. Connectivity was back yesterday for much of the country except for its mobile telephone networks, said NetBlocks, a website that monitors global internet disruptions.

"In the 186th hour of #Iran's national internet shutdown, mobile connectivity remains scarce while fixed-line/wifi is still shut in several regions," it tweeted at 2:13 pm. NetBlocks said internet connectivity on the country's three main mobile service providers-MCI, Rightel and Irancell-was running at zero, one and 28 percent, respectively.

Iran's arch-enemy the United States on Friday slapped sanctions on the Islamic republic's telecommunications minister over the outage. It issued a call Saturday for Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to suspend the accounts of Iranian government officials until coverage is re-established across the country. Since May last year when the US pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions, the Iranian rial has plummeted and inflation has soared. The International Monetary Fund expects the country's economy to contract by 9.5 percent this year.- AFP