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Riot police attacked hundreds of demonstrators with tear gas and fired live bullets in the air to disperse a rally in central Tehran Monday, carrying out a threat by the country's most powerful security force to crush any further opposition protests over the disputed presidential election.

Britain, accused by Iran of fomenting post-election unrest, said it was evacuating the families of diplomats and other officials based in Iran - the first country to do so as Iran's worst internal conflict since the 1979 Islamic Revolution escalated.

Witnesses said helicopters hovered overhead as about 200 protesters gathered at Haft-e-Tir Square. But hundreds of anti-riot police quickly put an end to the demonstration and prevented any gathering, even small groups, at the scene.

At the subway station at Haft-e-Tir, the witnesses said police did not allow anyone to stand still, asking them to keep on walking and separating people who were walking together. The witnesses asked not to be identified for fear of government reprisals.

Just before the clashes, an Iranian woman who lives in Tehran said there was a heavy police and security presence in another square in central Tehran. She asked not to be identified because she was worried about government reprisals.

"There is a massive, massive, massive police presence," she told the Associated Press in Cairo by telephone. "Their presence was really intimidating."

Iran says at least 17 protesters have been killed in a week of unrest so far after the electoral council declared hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad winner of the June 12 election. His main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, charged the election was a fraud and insists he is the true winner. His followers have been staging near-daily rallies, at least one of them drawing massive crowds of hundreds of thousands.

Severe restrictions on reporters have made it almost impossible to independently verify any reports on demonstrations, clashes and casualties. Iran has ordered reporters for foreign news agencies to stay in their offices, barring them from any reporting on the streets.

The country's highest electoral authority, the Guardian Council, acknowledged on Monday that there were voting irregularities in 50 electoral districts, the most serious official admission so far of problems in the election. But the council insisted the problems do not affect the outcome of the vote.

Earlier Monday, the elite Revolutionary Guard issued its sternest warning so far in the post-election crisis. It warned protesters to be prepared for a resolution and revolutionary confrontation with the Guards, Basij and other security forces and disciplinary forces if they continue their near-daily rallies.

The Basij, a plainclothes militia under the command of the Revolutionary Guard, have been used to quell streets protests that erupted after the election result was announced.

The Guard statement ordered demonstrators to end the sabotage and rioting activities and said their resistance is a conspiracy against Iran. On Sunday, acting joint chief of the armed forces Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid issued a thinly veiled warning to Mousavi, saying we are determined to confront plots by enemies aimed at creating a rift in the nation.

Mousavi vowed Sunday night to keep up the protests, in defiance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds ultimate power in Iran. In a sermon to tens of thousands on Friday, Khamenei said demonstrators must stop their street protests or face the consequences and he firmly backed Ahmadinejad's victory.

"The country belongs to you," Mousavi's latest statement said. "Protesting lies and fraud is your right."

Mousavi's Web site called Monday for supporters to turn on their car lights in the late afternoon as a sign of protest.

Mousavi's latest statements posted on his Web site also warned supporters of danger ahead, and said he would stand by the protesters at all times. But he said he would never allow anybody's life to be endangered because of my actions and called for pursuing fraud claims through an independent board.

The former prime minister, a longtime loyalist of the Islamic government, also called the Basij and military our brothers and protectors of our revolution and regime. He may be trying to constrain his followers' demands before they pose a mortal threat to Iran's system of limited democracy constrained by Shiite clerics, who have ultimate authority.

Mousavi ally and former president Mohammad Khatami said in a statement that protest in a civil manner and avoiding disturbances in the definite right of the people and all must respect that.

Iran authorities release Rafsanjani relative

A daughter of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a rival of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was released from detention two days after her arrest, state television said on Monday.

Iran's English-language Press TV had reported that Faezeh Rafsanjani and four other relatives of the former president were detained during an unauthorized protest in Tehran on Saturday. The four other relatives were freed earlier.

"Rafsanjani's daughter released after brief arrest," Press TV said in a headline without giving details.

Last week, the semi-official Fars News Agency said Faezeh and her brother Mehdi had been barred from leaving Iran.

Faezeh addressed supporters of defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi last Tuesday when they gathered near the state television building in Tehran in defiance of a ban on opposition protests.

Her father, who remains a powerful figure in Iran, supported Mousavi in the June 12 election.

Rafsanjani reacted furiously when, during the election campaign, Ahmadinejad accused him on television of corruption, publicly urging Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to rein in the president.

Rafsanjani is perceived by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad as the individual backing Mousavi and the reformist camp.

According to a report in the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Rafsanjani is contemplating the formation of a distinct body of clerics that would serve as an alternative to the ruling council of ayatollahs.

The report stated that the former president, who is based in the town of Qom, which is thought of as a religious stronghold, has already consulted other prominent clerics on possible future steps against his chief rival, Khamenei.

Iranian state radio said on Monday that no unrest broke out in Tehran overnight and the capital had been calm for the first time since the disputed June 12 presidential election.

"Tehran last night witnessed the first night of calm and peace since the election," state radio said.

On Sunday evening, witnesses told Reuters shooting was heard in two northern districts of Tehran, which are Mousavi strongholds.

State television earlier on Sunday said at least 10 people were killed during street clashes in downtown Tehran the previous day.

Mousavi on Sunday urged supporters to continue protests over the re-election of Ahmadinejad, in a direct challenge to the Islamic Republic's leadership.

Mousavi made a veiled appeal to the security forces to show restraint in handling demonstrations - a move likely to be viewed with deep suspicion by a conservative leadership that has vowed to use force wherever necessary to quell opposition.

Helicopters buzzed through the evening sky over Tehran and gunfire was heard in the north of the city, a bastion of support for the reformist former prime minister.

"Protesting against lies and fraud [in the election] is your right," Mousavi said in a statement on his Web site on Sunday.

"In your protests, continue to show restraint. I am expecting armed forces to avoid irreversible damage," he added.

Mousavi said the mass arrest of his supporters "will create a rift between society and the country's armed forces."

A product of the Islamic establishment himself, Mousavi said on Saturday he was not questioning the fundaments of the Islamic Republic but sought to renew it and purge it of what he called deceit and lies.

Iran's powerful Guardian Council admitted on Sunday that the number of votes collected in 50 cities was more than the number of eligible voters, the council's spokesman Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei told the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) channel.

He said this amounted to about 3 million questionable votes, but added that "it has yet to be determined whether the amount is decisive in the election results."

The authorities have branded the protesters as "terrorists" and rioters. Tehran's police commander Azizullah Rajabzadeh warned police would "confront all gatherings and unrest with all its strength," the official IRNA news agency reported.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in the forefront of diplomatic efforts to halt an Iranian nuclear program the West fears could yield atomic weapons, has urged Iran to stop violence against protesters.

The tensions in Iran, a major gas and oil producer, assumed broader significance on Sunday with Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, telling French radio they had added to risks facing the world economy and underlined the need for strengthening the global financial system.

Gunfire and chants

In pro-Mousavi districts of northern Tehran, supporters took to the rooftops after dusk to chant their defiance, witnesses said, an echo of tactics used in the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"I heard repeated shootings while people were chanting Allahu Akbar [God is great] in Niavaran area," said a witness, who asked not to be named.

There were no immediate reports of casualties and the shooting appeared an attempt to break up unsanctioned protests.

Government restrictions prevent correspondents working for foreign media from attending protests to report. Iran ordered BBC correspondent, Jon Leyne, out of the country.

Pro-reform clerics meanwhile increased pressure on Iran's conservative leadership.

Mohammad Khatami, a Mousavi ally and a moderate former president, warned of "dangerous consequences" if the people were prevented from expressing their demands in peaceful ways.

His comments, carried by the semi-official Mehr news agency, were implicit criticism of Khamenei, who has backed a ban on protests and defended the outcome of the election.

An analysis of official statistics from Iran's Interior Ministry by Britain's Chatham House think-tank suggested that in the conservative Mazandaran and Yazd provinces, turnout was more than 100 percent.

It said that in a third of all provinces, official results would have required Ahmadinejad to take all former conservative, centrist and all new voters, and up to 44 percent of reformist voters, "despite a decade of conflict between these two groups."

The authorities reject charges of election fraud. But the highest legislative body has said it is ready to recount a random 10 percent of votes cast.