DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Gunmen attacked a prominent Shia holy site in Iran on Wednesday, killing at least 15 people and injuring dozens. The attack came as protesters elsewhere in Iran marked a symbolic 40 days since the death of a woman in custody sparked the biggest anti-government protest in more than a decade.
State television blamed the attack on “takfiris”, a term that refers to Sunni Muslim extremists who have targeted the country’s Shia majority in the past. The attack seemed unrelated to the protests.
The judiciary’s official website said two gunmen have been arrested and a third is on the run after the attack on the Shah Cheragh Mosque, Iran’s second holiest site. State news agency IRNA reported the death toll and state television said 40 people were injured.
An Iranian news site considered close to the Supreme National Security Council reported that the attackers were foreign nationals, without giving further details.
Such attacks are rare in Iran, but last April an assailant stabbed two clerics to death at the Imam Reza shrine, the country’s most revered Shiite site, in the northeastern city of Mashhad.
Earlier on Wednesday, thousands of protesters took to the streets of a northwestern town to mark 40 days since the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, whose tragedy sparked the protests.
Deaths are commemorated in Shia Islam – as in many other traditions – again 40 days later, usually with an outpouring of grief. In Amini’s Kurdish hometown of Saqez, the cradle of national unrest currently rocking Iran, mobs swarmed the local cemetery and invaded his grave.
READ MORE: The eastern Iranian city of Zahedan, scene of a previous deadly crackdown, sees new protests
“Death to the dictator!” protesters wept, according to video footage that matches known features of the city and Aichi cemetery. The women ripped off their headscarves or hijabs and waved them above their heads. Other videos showed a huge procession heading along a highway and through a dusty field towards Amini’s grave. Road closures have been reported in the area.
State-linked media reported 10,000 protesters in the procession to his grave.
Hengaw, a Kurdish human rights group, said security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters. The semi-official ISNA news agency said security forces fired pellets into crowds of protesters on the outskirts of Saqez and pushed back protesters who tried to attack the governor’s office. He said local internet access had been cut for “security considerations”.
Earlier in the day, Kurdistan Governor Esmail Zarei Koosha insisted traffic was proceeding normally, calling the situation “completely stable”.
State media reported that schools and universities in Iran’s northwestern region would close, supposedly to curb “the spread of the flu”.
In downtown Tehran, the capital, large sections of the traditional grand bazaar have closed in solidarity with the protests. Crowds cheered and shouted “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” through the labyrinthine market.
“This year is a year of blood!” they also sang. “(Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) will be overthrown!”
Riot police on motorcycles were out in force. A large group of men and women marched through the streets, burning trash cans and shouting Death to the Dictator! as cars honked their support. Police fired riot bullets at protesters in the streets and sprayed pellets upwards at journalists filming from windows and rooftops. Anti-government chants also rang out from the campus of Tehran University.
Amini, detained for allegedly violating the country’s strict dress code for women, remains a powerful symbol of the protests that have posed one of the most serious challenges to the Islamic Republic.
Under the slogan #WomanLifeFreedom, the protests initially focused on women’s rights and the state-mandated hijab, or headscarf for women. But they quickly turned into calls to oust Shiite clerics who have ruled Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The protests have also galvanized university students, labor unions, prisoners and ethnic minorities like the Kurds along the Iran-Iraq border.
READ MORE: Iran releases security footage of prison fire, raising more questions
Since the protests began, security forces have fired live ammunition and tear gas to disperse protests, killing more than 200 people, rights groups say.
Countless people have been arrested, with estimates in the thousands. Iranian judicial authorities announced this week that they would bring more than 600 people to justice for their role in the protests, including 315 in Tehran, 201 in neighboring Alborz province and 105 in the southwestern province of Khuzestan.
Tehran prosecutor Ali Salehi told the official IRNA news agency that four protesters have been charged with “war against God”, which carries the death penalty in Iran.
Iranian officials blamed the protests on foreign interference, without providing evidence.
Last week, Iran imposed sanctions on more than a dozen European officials, companies and institutions, including foreign Farsi-language channels that covered the protests extensively, accusing them of “supporting terrorism “. The sanctions involve an entry and visa ban for staff members in addition to the confiscation of their assets in Iran.
Deutsche Welle, the German public broadcaster whose Farsi team has been blacklisted, on Wednesday condemned the move as “unacceptable”.
“I expect politicians in Germany and Europe to increase the pressure on the regime,” DW chief executive Peter Limbourg said.
In a separate development, most of the remaining part of a 10-story tower that collapsed earlier this year in the southwestern city of Abadan, killing at least 41 people, is fell on Wednesday, state media reported. State news agency IRNA reported that a woman in a car parked near the site had been killed. Other parts of the building had collapsed last month.
The deadly collapse of the Metropol building on May 23 has become a lightning rod for protests in Abadan, some 660 kilometers (410 miles) southwest of the capital, Tehran. The disaster brought to light poor construction practices, government corruption and negligence in Iran.
Videos leaked online showing the remaining tower crashing into the street as huge clouds of dust rose into the sky.