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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — An Iranian competitive climber left South Korea on Tuesday after participating in an event in which she climbed without her country’s mandatory headscarf, authorities said. Farsi-language media outside Iran warned that she may have been forced to leave early by Iranian officials and could be arrested at home, which Tehran quickly denied.

Multiple competition medalist Elnaz Rekabi’s decision to give up the headscarf, or hijab, came as protests sparked by the September 16 death in custody of a 22-year-old woman entered their fifth week. Mahsa Amini was arrested by the country’s vice police for her clothes.

The protests, drawing school children, oil workers and others to the streets in more than 100 cities, represent the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since mass protests surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election. .

A subsequent Instagram post on an account attributed to Rekabi described her not wearing a hijab as “unintentional”, although it was not immediately clear whether she had written the post or what state she was in at the time. the time. The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights groups describe as forced confessions on state television.

Rekabi left Seoul on a flight Tuesday morning, the Iranian embassy in South Korea said. The BBC’s Persian Service, which has extensive contacts in Iran despite the ban on operating there, quoted an unnamed “informed source” who described Iranian officials as having seized both the mobile phone and the passport of Rekabi.

BBC Persian also said she was originally due to return on Wednesday, but her flight was apparently brought forward unexpectedly.

IranWire, another country-focused website founded by Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari who was once detained by Iran, alleged that Rekabi would be immediately transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison after arriving in the country. Evin prison was the scene of a violent fire this weekend which killed at least eight prisoners.

In a tweet, the Iranian embassy in Seoul denied “all fake news and misinformation” regarding Rekabi’s departure on Tuesday. But instead of posting a photo of her from the Seoul competition, he posted an image of her wearing a headscarf from a previous competition in Moscow, where she won a bronze medal.

Calls to the Iranian embassy in Seoul went unanswered on Tuesday.

Rekabi did not wear a hijab in Sunday’s final at the International Federation of Sport Climbing Asian Championships, according to the Seoul-based Korean Alpine Federation, the organizers of the event.

Federation officials said Rekabi wore a hijab in his first appearances at the week-long Climbing event. She wore just a black headband when competing on Sunday, her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail; she had a white jersey with the Iranian flag as a logo on it.

The latest Instagram post, written in the first person, issued an apology on behalf of Rekabi. The post blamed her for a sudden call for her to scale the competition wall – although footage from the competition showed Rekabi relaxed as she approached and after competing. He also sought to describe his trip back to Iran on Tuesday as “on schedule”.

Rekabi was part of Iran’s 11-member delegation, made up of eight athletes and three coaches, at the event, according to the federation.

Federation officials said they were not initially aware of Rekabi competing without the hijab, but looked into the matter after receiving inquiries about him. They said the event had no rules requiring female athletes to wear headscarves or not. However, Iranian women who compete abroad under the Iranian flag always wear the hijab.

“Our understanding is that she is returning to Iran, and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops upon her arrival,” said the International Sport Climbing Federation, which oversaw the event. in a press release. “It is important to emphasize that athlete safety is paramount to us and we support all efforts to ensure the safety of a valued member of our community in this situation.”

The federation said it had been in contact with Rekabi and Iranian officials, but declined to elaborate on the substance of those calls when contacted by The Associated Press. The federation also declined to discuss the Instagram post attributed to Rekabi and the claims it contains.

South Korea’s Justice Ministry declined to confirm whether the Iranian athlete is still in South Korea or has left the country, citing confidentiality regulations. South Korea’s foreign ministry said it had no comment on the matter.

Rekabi, 33, has finished on the podium three times at the Asian Championships, winning a silver and two bronze for his efforts.

So far, human rights groups estimate that more than 200 people have been killed in the protests and the violent crackdown by security forces that followed. Iran has not offered a death toll for weeks. Demonstrations have been seen in more than 100 cities, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Thousands of people were reportedly arrested.

Gathering information on the protests, however, remains difficult. Internet access has been interrupted for weeks by the Iranian government. Meanwhile, authorities have detained at least 40 journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have repeatedly claimed that the country’s foreign enemies are behind the ongoing protests, rather than Iranians angered by Amini’s death and the country’s other woes. .

Iranians have seen their savings evaporate; the country’s currency, the rial, plummeted and Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers was torn to shreds.

In a statement on Tuesday, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called for the immediate release of all those “arbitrarily detained” during the protests. He also criticized the “relentlessly violent response by the security forces” which saw even children reportedly arrested and killed.

“The continued, unnecessary and disproportionate use of force against protesters must end,” the statement said. “The arrest of people solely for exercising their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of liberty. »

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Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers John Marshall in Phoenix and Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul contributed to this report.

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