Thousands of Iranians disputing the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad marched at an unauthorized rally Sunday, defying truncheon-wielding security forces and dire threats by Iranian leaders.
At the same time, European leaders' hackles were raised by the arrest a day earlier of eight British Embassy staffers in Tehran, Iran, a move that has sharpened Iran's confrontation with the West over the disputed election and its violent aftermath. Several of the staffers, all Iranian nationals, were released.
Witnesses said riot police used tear gas and clubs to break up a crowd of up to 3,000 protesters who had gathered near north Tehran's Ghoba Mosque in the country's first major post-election unrest in four days.
Some described scenes of brutality, saying some protesters suffered broken bones and alleging that police beat an elderly woman, prompting a screaming match with young demonstrators who then fought back.
The reports could not be independently verified because of tight restrictions imposed on journalists in Iran.
North Tehran is a base of support for opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has alleged massive fraud in Iran's disputed June 12 presidential election and insists he — not Ahmadinejad — is the rightful winner.
Witnesses said they did not spot Mousavi at the rally. But one of his close assistants addressed the crowd through a loudspeaker and other opposition figures also appeared, including reformist presidential candidate Mahdi Karroubi.
Later, after the situation calmed, police set up patrols and cordons.
It was Iran's first election-related unrest since Wednesday, when a small group of rock-throwing protesters who had gathered near parliament was quickly overwhelmed by police forces using tear gas and clubs.
Iranian authorities say that 17 protesters and eight members of the volunteer Basij militia have been killed in two weeks of unrest, and that hundreds of people have been arrested.
The International Federation of Human Rights said its information suggests at least 2,000 arrests have been made — "not just (people) arrested and later released, but who are locked up in prison," the group's vice president, Abdol Karim Lahidji, said.
Iran's diplomatic battles also intensified Sunday after authorities detained several local employees of the British Embassy in Tehran — a move that Britain's foreign secretary called "harassment and intimidation."
Iranian media said eight local embassy staffers were detained for alleged roles in post-election protests, but gave no further details. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that "about nine" employees were detained Saturday and that four had been released.
Foreign ministers of European states, gathered for a European Union conference in Greece, quickly condemned the arrests. Although the United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979, France, Italy, Germany and Britain maintain robust diplomatic missions in Tehran.
"Harassment or intimidation of foreign or Iranian staff working in embassies will be met with a strong and collective EU response," said a statement issued by the foreign ministers.
Iran has accused the West of stoking unrest, singling out Britain and the United States for alleged meddling and for expressing concern about the ferocity of the regime's crackdown on protesters. Last week, Iran expelled two British diplomats, and Britain responded in kind. Iran has also said it's considering downgrading diplomatic ties with Britain.
Senior White House adviser David Axelrod played down Ahmadinejad's accusations against the United States, saying they aren't credible and are meant for domestic consumption. "This is political theater," he said.
Mousavi signaled anew he won't drop his political challenge. In a new statement, he insisted on a repeat of the election and rejected a partial recount being proposed by the government. However, Mousavi's challenge seemed largely aimed at maintaining some role as an opposition figure.
The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ruled out any compromise with the opposition.
Information from the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.