TEHRAN — Hundreds of thousands of government supporters took to Iran's streets on Wednesday in a show of force against the opposition, with a senior cleric telling their leaders to repent or face death.
Just hours later, state news agency IRNA reported that top opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi had fled the capital fearing for their lives, but this claim quickly came under suspicion.
"Two of the chiefs of the sedition left Tehran for the north of Iran after learning that the population was increasingly angry and demanding their punishment," IRNA said.
They were said to be in the locality of Kelar-Abad, in the northern Mazandaran province on the Caspian Sea.
But Karroubi's son, Hossein, denied the report and said he saw his father on Wednesday evening.
"Some are trying to create a climate of fear and terror ... by spreading information about the arrest or exile (of my father) to put pressure on him," he said in a statement posted on Mehdi Karroubi's website Sahamnews.
Later, the semi-official Fars news agency said "informed sources have denied that the chiefs of the sedition left Tehran, saying this false information came from elements within the sedition."
For its part, opposition website Rahebsabz said Karroubi and Mousavi were taken into custody by the authorities for their own protection, citing a special IRNA wire report devoted to government officials.
"Members of the Revolutionary Guards and the intelligence ministry picked up Mousavi and Karroubi in the city of Kelar-Abad to protect them from the anger of the people."
Then shortly afterwards Rahebsabz recanted. It said its report was "false," but did not give details.
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Earlier, television footage showed crowds in areas including Tehran's Enghelab Square, chanting slogans and waving pro-regime placards.
"O free-willed leader, we are ready, we are ready," they shouted in reference to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The rallies were called in response to a series of opposition protests against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed June re-election -- in which Mousavi and Karroubi were the main challengers.
Hardliners have reacted angrily after thousands of opposition supporters used Sunday's climax of Ashura, one of Shiite Islam's holiest days, to protest, condemning the demonstrations as "desecration."
"The offensive slogans have made the pious Iranian nation sad and the Zionist world happy, and in practice they as pawns of the enemies have furnished a red carpet for the foreigners who are aiming at the nation's security," the government said.
Public prosecutor Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie told a closed session of parliament that Mousavi and Karroubi "are on the wanted list," ILNA news agency reported, citing MP Hassan Norouzi.
And in some of the strongest language since the election, a senior conservative cleric told opposition leaders to "repent" or be declared "enemies of God" and face the death sentence.
Without naming anyone, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda told a Tehran rally that "millions of people here are telling the heads of the sedition that since the supreme leader still keeps open the gate of repentance for you, then in a deadline that should be set by the judiciary you must repent and return to the path of the leader."
Alamolhoda, a member of the Assembly of Experts which selects the supreme leader, added: "If you do not, then this people and the regime will confront you as mohareb (enemies of God)."
Those convicted of the offence face the death penalty.
"We are warning for the final time those who were defeated in the election to distance themselves from the anti-revolutionaries, since if they do not they will face the revolutionary wrath of the Iranian people," a statement at the end of the rally said.
This warning was clearly directed at Mousavi and Karroubi, as were placards at the rallies, one of which read: "Mousavi is a murderer. His execution is a must."
Since Sunday when at least eight people were killed, scores of opposition figures and dissidents have been rounded up, and several reformist journalists and activists have also been arrested, reports said.
Three hundred of the 500 "rioters" arrested by police were still being held, Iran's police chief Esmaeel Ahmadi Moghaddam said on Wednesday, adding that more were detained by other security agencies.
Police will now adopt a policy of zero tolerance and rioters "will be dealt with severely," he warned.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said she was shocked by the violence in the crackdown, and urged Tehran to rein in "excesses by security forces."
Ahmadinejad, who has accused the United States and Israel of staging the weekend demonstrations, said in comments reported Wednesday by ISNA news agency: "The heads of the US and some European nations ... are repeating their old mistakes."
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