The United Nations and rights groups expressed concern on Tuesday over what activists described as a lethal crackdown in Iran against protests over the death of a young woman after her arrest by Tehran's notorious morality police.
Mahsa Amini, 22, died on Friday three days after she was urgently hospitalised following her arrest by police responsible for enforcing Iran's strict dress code for women.
Activists said she suffered a blow to the head in custody but this has not been confirmed by the Iranian authorities, who have opened an investigation.
There have been protests in Tehran but the fiercest clashes so far have been in Iran's northern Kurdistan province where Amini was from, with rights groups saying up to four protesters have been killed so far and dozens more wounded and arrested.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said that witness accounts and videos circulating on social media "indicate that authorities are using teargas to disperse protesters and have apparently used lethal force in Kurdistan province."
"Cracking down with teargas and lethal force against protesters demanding accountability for a woman's death in police custody reinforces the systematic nature of government rights abuses and impunity," said Tara Sepehri Far, HRW's senior Iran researcher.
In Geneva, the UN said acting High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada Al-Nashif expressed alarm at Amini's death and the "the violent response by security forces to ensuing protests."
She said there must be an independent investigation into "Mahsa Amini's tragic death and allegations of torture and ill-treatment."
‘Stop further state killings’
The Kurdish human rights group Hengaw, which is based in Norway, said it had confirmed a total of three deaths in Kurdistan province - one apiece in the towns of Divandareh, Saqqez and Dehglan.
It added that 221 people had been wounded and another 250 arrested in the Kurdistan region, where there had also been a general strike on Monday.
A 10-year-old girl - images of whose blood-spattered body have gone viral on social media - was wounded in the town of Bukan but was alive, it added.
Images posted on social media have shown fierce clashes especially in the town of Divandareh between protesters and the security forces, with sounds of live fire.
The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights (IHR) group said that four people had been killed in protests where people shouted slogans including "Death to the dictator" and "Woman, life, freedom".
"The international community shouldn't be silent observers of the crimes the Islamic Republic commits against its own people," said IHR director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam.
"We call on countries with diplomatic relations with Iran, the EU in particular, to stop further state killings by supporting the people's demands to realise their basic rights."
IHR said security forces used batons, teargas, water cannons, rubber bullets and live ammunition in certain regions "to directly target protesters and crush the protests."
The U.N. statement said at least two people have reportedly been killed and several injured.
The death of Amini has caused international consternation, with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken calling Monday "on the Iranian government to end its systemic persecution of women and to allow peaceful protest."
The Islamic headscarf has been obligatory in public for all women in Iran since shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the shah.
The rules are enforced by a special unit of police known as the Gasht-e Ershad (guidance patrol), who have the power to arrest women deemed to have violated the dress code, although normally they are released with a warning.
In rare published criticism from within Iran, Jalal Rashidi Koochi, a member of parliament, told the ISNA news agency that "Gasht-e Ershad is wrong because it has had no result except loss and damage for the country," adding that "the main problem is that some people resist accepting the truth."
Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi plans to travel to New York for the U.N. General Assembly this week where he is set to face intense scrutiny over Iran's human rights record.
French President Emmanuel Macron is to hold a rare meeting with Raisi later Tuesday in a final attempt to agree a deal reviving the 2015 nuclear accord.