TEHRAN (AFP) — Iranian students staged a noisy protest against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the country's top university in Tehran on Monday, likening him to the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Riot police barred the group of about 100 chanting male and female students from leaving the Tehran University campus, where Ahmadinejad was giving a speech to mark the start of a new academic year, a witness told AFP.
"Ahmadinejad is Pinochet! Iran will not become Chile," the students shouted, the witness said.
The demonstrators at Iran's top academic institution were calling for the release of students detained since May for publishing writings considered insulting to Islam, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
The gate of the campus was chain-locked by hundreds of regular police and then guarded by riot police equipped with hard helmets, plastic shields and in green uniform.
Some students tried to break down the lock by kicking at the gate and scuffled with university guards.
The demonstrating students briefly clashed with a rival group of supporters of the hardline president who shouted: "Shame on you hypocrites! Leave the university!"
The protesters, mainly male students, held banners reading "Free Ehsan Mansouri, Majid Tavakoli and Ahmad Ghasaban!", the three detained students.
Holding hands, they sang a students' solidarity song that dates back to the early days of the 1979 Islamic revolution during the demonstration called by the Islamic Association of Students, a reformist group.
The clashes and hot-headed verbal exchanges between the rival groups disrupted the planned live broadcast of Ahmadinejad's speech, Fars reported.
One of the students in a a speech criticised the treatment of university lecturers, the report said. "If we are the freest country of the world, why do you sack lecturers?" he asked.
A supporter of Ahmadinejad, however, shouted back: "Non-Muslim lecturers must be sacked."
Last December, Iranian students disrupted a speech by Ahmadinejad at Tehran's Amir Kabir university, setting fire to his picture and shouting "death to the dictator."
Ahmadinejad, an ultra-conservative who won a shock election victory in 2005 on a wave of popular support, responded then by describing those students as an "oppressive" minority.
In recent months, Ahmadinejad has also faced mounting criticism of his government's economic policies.
Monday's protest came just two weeks after Ahmadinejad addressed New York's prestigious Columbia University during a controversial visit to the United States to attend the UN General Assembly.
"Why only Columbia? We have questions too," read banners brandished by the students at Tehran University.
Ahmadinejad was treated to a humiliating and public dressing down at Columbia, where he was described as a "petty and cruel dictator" by the university president even before he spoke.
He used his appearance to reject his label of a Holocaust denier, to insist the Islamic republic had the right to pursue a civilian nuclear energy programme and to deny Tehran was seeking nuclear weapons.
Tensions are running high with the West over Iran's atomic programme, with major powers expected to decide in November whether to impose further sanctions on the Islamic republic.
A top official from the UN atomic watchdog was due in Tehran on Monday for a new round of talks on the nuclear standoff, following an August agreement reached for Iran to provide answers to outstanding questions.
Tehran has been slapped with two sets of UN sanctions for refusing to freeze uranium enrichment, a process which creates nuclear fuel but can also make the core of an atomic bomb.
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