Miners besiege Iranian president's car

AZADSHAHR, Iran: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (center) visits and speaks with coalminers and rescue workers at the scene of a coal mine which suffered from an explosion in northern Iran, leaving dozens of miners trapped inside. — AFP

TEHRAN: Angry coal miners besieged a car carrying Iranian President Hassan Rouhani yesterday after he visited the site of a deadly mine explosion, a rare protest targeting the nation's top elected official as he campaigns for re-election. Soot-covered miners, enraged over the disaster that reportedly killed at least 35 miners Wednesday in Iran's northern Golestan province, kicked and beat the armored SUV carrying Rouhani.

The incident offered an extraordinary sign of very public dissent ahead of Iran's May 19 presidential poll, a contest largely viewed as a referendum on Rouhani and his nuclear deal with world powers. Official state media did not immediately report on the incident, first brought to light by videos posted online by the semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies. Both are believed to have links to Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary force that Rouhani criticized during a televised presidential debate on Friday.

Fars went so far as to say on Twitter that state media "had censored pictures" of the protests, without elaborating. Videos showed one miner atop the SUV carrying Rouhani, a banner in his hand, as another miner jumped up and down and kicked its hood. Others beat the hood and body of the SUV. "Dear brothers! I beg you wait for a couple of minutes!" someone shouts.

Rouhani's SUV eventually nudges its way through the crowd amid the shouting. Another miner rushes up to kick the back of it as it sped away down a hill. Another Tasnim video shows a woman in a black chador rush into the path of the SUV, shouting: "Please God, help me!" Presidential bodyguards hang off the sides of the SUV, but largely don't interact with the crowds as police in dress uniforms are unable to keep the crowd from swarming it and throwing stones. The SUV appeared largely undamaged from the incident.

Hamid Aboutalebi, a political adviser to Rouhani, later tweeted that the provincial governor of Golestan had told him not to let the president travel to the mine as those there were still greatly upset over the disaster. "President Rouhani told me I am the president in the time of their pain and fervor, if their shouts at me could lead to national peace, I have to go," Aboutalebi wrote.

Rouhani had traveled to the Zemestanyourt mine to give a speech to miners and their families gathered there. He acknowledged that as the government, "we are responsible for their lives and is it our duty". "Be sure that we will pursue this issue and also your demands," Rouhani said. "Those who are guilty in this incident should be prosecuted by a court."

The explosion Wednesday happened after the coal mine filled with methane gas, sickening dozens who later rushed into the mine to try to rescue those trapped. Three semi-official news agencies have said at least 35 people were killed in the disaster. Iranian officials say they've recovered 22 bodies and their search continues. Rouhani himself had said before being besieged that it was his vice president who was set to visit the site, but "I decided to visit you myself."

His stop by came amid his campaigning for another four-year term as Iran's elected president, serving under the country's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say over all state matters. Rouhani remains the favorite in the election as every Iranian president since Khamenei himself took the presidency in 1981 has won re-election. However, many in the country remain discontent as the benefits of the nuclear deal have yet to trickle down to the average Iranian.

Hardliners opposed to Rouhani and the deal have detained and convicted dual nationals on secret spying charges and ordered tense encounters with US Navy vessels in the Arabian Gulf. Rouhani, who typically shies away from direct criticism of the Guard, openly accused them during Friday's debate of trying to scuttle the accord. He pointed to a March 2016 ballistic missile launch by the Guard that saw the weapon marked with Hebrew writing reading "Israel must be wiped out" as one instance of them trying to sabotage it.

The mine explosion also marks the second major disaster to strike Iran in recent months. In January, a high-rise tower in Tehran that caught fire collapsed and killed 26 people, including 16 firefighters, leading to mourning nationwide. - AP