The official death toll from Iran's wave of popular unrest shot up to at least 17 on Thursday as anger flares over the in-custody death of the young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini.
However, the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights group said at least 31 civilians had been killed in a crackdown by the Iranian security forces in six consecutive nights of violence.
Iranians took to the streets "to achieve their fundamental rights and human dignity ... and the government is responding to their peaceful protest with bullets," said the group's director, Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam.
Amini, 22, died last week after she was arrested by the Islamic Republic's feared morality police for allegedly wearing a hijab headscarf in an "improper" way. Her death sparked widespread outrage.
"Death to the dictator" and "Woman, life, freedom" are slogans protesters could be heard shouting in video footage shared online, during the biggest wave of protests to rock the country in almost three years.
Among those killed in clashes have been police and militia officers, state TV reported, while overseas-based human rights groups reported many more deaths, which could not be independently verified.
Security forces fired at crowds with birdshot and metal pellets, and also deployed tear gas and water cannon, according to Amnesty International and other human rights groups.
There were fears the violence would escalate further after Iranian authorities restricted internet access and blocked messaging apps including WhatsApp and Instagram, as they have done during past crackdowns.
Some women burnt their scarves and symbolically cut their hair in protest of the strict dress code. These defiant actions were echoed in solidarity protests abroad in New York, Istanbul and elsewhere.
Activists said Amini, whose Kurdish first name is Jhina, suffered a fatal blow to the head during her detention in Tehran— a claim denied by officials, who have announced an investigation.
Iranian women on the streets of Tehran told AFP they are now more careful about their dress to avoid run-ins with the morality police.
"I'm frightened," said Nazanin, a 23-year-old nurse who asked to be identified by her first name only for safety reasons, adding she believed the morality police "shouldn't confront people at all."
In an address to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, US President Joe Biden said that "we stand with the brave citizens and the brave women of Iran who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights."
Iran's ultra-conservative President Ebrahim Raisi, speaking later in the same forum, complained of a "double standard" and pointed to Israeli actions in the Palestinian territories and the deaths of indigenous women in Canada.
The protests come at a particularly sensitive time for Iranian leadership as the country's economy remains mired in a crisis largely caused by sanctions over its nuclear program.
Unprecedented images have shown protesters defacing or burning images of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and late Revolutionary Guard commander Qasem Soleimani.
The wave of unrest "is a very significant shock, it is a societal crisis," said Iran expert David Rigoulet-Roze, of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.
The protests are among the most serious in Iran since the November 2019 unrest sparked by a sharp rise in petrol prices. The crackdown then killed hundreds, according to Amnesty International.
In the last week, demonstrators hurled stones at security forces, set fire to police vehicles and garbage bins, and chanted anti-government slogans, the official IRNA news agency said.
On Thursday, Iranian media said three militiamen who had "mobilized to deal with rioters" were stabbed or shot dead in northwestern Tabriz, central Qazvin and northeastern Mashhad.
UN human rights experts condemned the "use of physical violence against women" and the "state-mandated internet disruptions" which they said were usually part of larger efforts "to stifle ... free expression ... and to curtail ongoing protests."
Iran's Fars news agency reported that "in accordance with a decision by officials, it has no longer been possible to access Instagram in Iran since [Wednesday] evening and access to WhatsApp is also disrupted."
The two apps were the most widely used in Iran. Other platforms were blocked in recent years, including Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, YouTube and TikTok.
The official death toll from Iran's wave of popular unrest shot up to at least 17 on Thursday as anger flares over the in-custody death of the young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini.However, the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights group said at least 31 civilians had been killed in a crackdown by the Iranian security forces in six consecutive nights of violence.Iranians took to the streets "to achieve their...