Tehran: Iran's supreme leader on Saturday urged a unit of the country's plainclothes militia to step up action against protesters, in remarks that could escalate a crackdown on months-long anti-regime unrest.
"Dealing with rioters is one of the most important tasks of the Basij," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a televised speech, referring to a civilian volunteer force known as being one of his most loyal support bases.
Protests erupted in Iran in mid-September and quickly escalated into the fiercest opposition to the Islamic Republic leadership in decades following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody after she was arrested for allegedly violating Islamic dress codes.
Rights groups say more than 400 people, including tens of children, have been killed in clashes with security forces since the protests began.
Dozens of unverified videos that have since been shared on social media show plainclothes forces engage in beatings and opening fire at protesters, alongside the anti-riot police.
"The field of battle isn't limited to a handful of rioters in streets, but that's not to disregard these rioters. Any rioter, any terrorist should be punished," Khamenei said.
The Basij forces, affiliated with the country's elite Revolutionary Guards, have been at the forefront of the state crackdown on the unrest in the past weeks.
"They have sacrificed their lives to protect people from rioters ... the presence of Basij shows that the Islamic Revolution is alive," Khamenei said
The statements echoed Khamenei's remarks in 2017, when he urged his supporters to "fire at will," or act at their own discretion, to safeguard the country's interests - comments that stoked concerns for unchecked violence against dissenters at the time.
Khamenei also lauded Iran's national football team for "making people happy" after they beat Wales in the World Cup on Friday.
The win came as Iran's players sang the national anthem on the pitch following Khamenei's rebuke against "disrespecting" it. The players had remained silent as it was played ahead of their opening World Cup match against England on Monday, in a gesture seen as a sign of support for protests.
Social media footage showed guards in riot gear, some wearing balaclavas, clapping and cheering in unison following Iran's third win in World Cup history. Other videos showed a motorcade of security forces shouting from motorbikes and waving the national flag atop black anti-riot trucks.