DOZENS of protesters are reported to have died in skirmishes across Iran as the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, backed a government decision to raise petrol prices by 50%.

Khamenei called demonstrators, who set fire to public property over the hike “thugs”, as authorities apparently shut down the internet to smother the protests in around two dozen cities and towns.

Since the price hike, demonstrators have abandoned their cars along major motorways and joined mass protests in the capital, Tehran, and many other cities across the country..

Some turned violent, with demonstrators setting fires and letting off guns. Authorities said only one person was killed, though other videos from the protests have shown people gravely wounded. The Iranian opposition in exile, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), said 27 people were known to have been killed – at least 14 in Shahriar city – as the uprising spread to 93 cities.

In an address aired by state television yesterday, Khamenei said “some people had died and some centres destroyed”. He called violent protesters “thugs” who had been pushed into violence by counter-revolutionaries and foreign enemies of Iran.

“Setting a bank on fire is not an act done by the people. This is what thugs do,” he said.

However, he made a point to back the decision of President Hassan Rouhani and others to raise petrol prices.

Petrol there remains among the cheapest in the world, with the new prices jumping up to a minimum of 15,000 rials (35p) per litre.

Khamenei ordered security forces “to implement their tasks” and for the country’s citizens to keep clear of demonstrators, which seemed to indicate a looming potential crackdown.

Economic protests in late 2017 into last year were met by a heavy reaction from police and the Basij, the volunteer wing of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard (IRGC).

“Such illegal actions would not solve any problem but add insecurity,” said Khamenei.

“Lack of security is the biggest calamity for any country and society. That is what they are looking for.”

The NCRI said reports from the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK) from inside the country indicated weekend demonstrations were held in at least 93 cities in 27 provinces.

It said: ”At least 27 protesters are confirmed killed”, but warned that the figure could rise.

The NCRI called on the international community to condemn the regime’s crackdown, and to support rallies being held around the world, “to condemn the clerical regime’s suppressive measures, and to express support for the people’s uprising for the establishment of democracy”.

Iran’s government is struggling to overcome the strangling of its economy under US sanctions after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers over a year ago.

While representing a political risk for Rouhani ahead of parliamentary elections in February, they also show widespread anger among Iran’s 80 million population who have seen their savings evaporate amid a shortage of jobs and the collapse of their national currency.

Internet access in Iran saw weekend disruptions and outages, according to the group NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access.

NetBlocks said: “The ongoing disruption is the most severe recorded in Iran since President Rouhani came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth.”

The country’s internet has currently been totally shut down by the government in an attempt to stop the unrest from spreading further.