Army locks down Bahrain, bans gatherings

2011-02-17 15:24

Manama - Army patrols and tanks locked down the capital of the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain after riot police swinging clubs and firing tear gas smashed into demonstrators, many of them sleeping, in a pre-dawn assault on Thursday that uprooted their protest camp demanding political change.

Medical officials said four people were killed.

Hours after the attack on Manama's main Pearl Square, the military announced on state TV that it had "key parts" of the capital under its control and that gatherings were banned.

The developments marked a major crackdown by the island nation's rulers to put an end to days of protests inspired by Egypt's revolt against Hosni Mubarak.

Tiny Bahrain is a pillar of Washington's military framework in the region. It hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet, which is a critical counterbalance to Iran's efforts to expand its clout in the region.

The capital Manama was effectively shut down on Thursday. For the first time, tanks and military checkpoints were deployed in the streets and army patrols circulated.

Barbed wire

The Interior Ministry warned Bahrainis to stay off the streets. Banks and other key institutions did not open, and workers stayed home, unable or to afraid to pass through checkpoints to get to their jobs.

Barbed wire and police cars with flashing blue lights encircled Pearl Square, the site of anti-government rallies since Monday.

Police cleaned up flattened protest tents and trampled banners inside the square, littered with broken glass, tear gas canisters and debris. A body covered in a white sheet lay in a pool of blood on the side of a road about 20m from the landmark square.

Demonstrators had been camping out for days around the square's 90m monument featuring a giant pearl, making it the nerve centre of the first anti-government protests to reach the Arab Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

The protesters' demands have two main objectives: Force the ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions, and address deep grievances held by the country's majority Shi'ites who claim they face systematic discrimination and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

But among Bahrain's rulers, the prospect of a prolonged crisis raised fears of a potential flashpoint between Iran and its Arab rivals in the Gulf.

Little warning

Bahrain's ruling Sunni dynasty is closely allied to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab regimes in the Gulf. Shi'ite hard-liners in Iran have often expressed kinship and support for Bahrain's Shi'ite majority, which accounts for 70% of the island's 500 000 citizens.

The police assault came early on Thursday with little warning. Mahmoud Mansouri, a protester, said police surrounded the camp and then quickly moved in.

"We yelled, 'We are peaceful! Peaceful!' The women and children were attacked just like the rest of us," he said. "They moved in as soon as the media left us. They knew what they're doing."

Bahrain's parliament - minus opposition lawmakers who are staging a boycott - met in emergency session. One pro-government member, Jamila Salman, broke into tears.

A leader of the Shi'ite opposition Abdul Jalil Khalil said 18 parliament members also have resigned to protest the killings.

As the crackdown began, demonstrators in the square described police swarming in through a cloud of eye-stinging tear gas.

Dozens wounded

"They attacked our tents, beating us with batons," said Jafar Jafar, aged 17. "The police were lined up at the bridge overhead. They were shooting tear gas from the bridge."

Hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said four people were killed early Thursday. Wounded streamed by the dozens into Salmaniya medical centre, the main state-run hospital in Manama, with serious gaping wounds, broken bones and respiratory problems from the tear gas.

Outside the medical complex, dozens of protesters chanted: "The regime must go."

The protest movement's next move is unclear, but the island nation has been rocked by street battles as recently as last summer. A wave of arrests of perceived Shiite dissidents touched off weeks of rioting and demonstrations.

Before the attack on the square, protesters had called for major rallies after Friday prayers. The reported deaths, however, could become a fresh rallying point. Thousands of mourners had turned out for the funeral processions of two other people killed in the protests earlier in the week.

Government supporters relentless

After prayers on Wednesday evening, a Shiite imam in the square had urged Bahrain's youth not to back down.

"This square is a trust in your hands and so will you whittle away this trust or keep fast?" the imam said. "So be careful and be concerned for your country and remember that the regime will try to rip this country from your hand but if we must leave it in coffins then so be it!"

Across the city, government supporters in a caravan of cars waved national flags and displayed portraits of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

"Come join us!" they yelled into markets and along busy streets. "Show your loyalty."

Thousands of mourners turned out on Wednesday for the funeral procession of 31-year-old Fadhel al-Matrook, one of two people killed on Monday in the protests. Later, in Pearl Square, his father Salman pleaded with protesters not to give up.

"He is not only my son. He is the son of Bahrain, the son of this nation," he yelled. "His blood shouldn't be wasted."

Monday's bloodshed brought embarrassing rebukes from allies such as Britain and the United States. A statement from Bahrain's Interior Ministry said suspects have been "placed in custody" in connection with the two deaths but gave no further details.

- AP

Read more on:    bahrain
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