Bahrain protests swell ahead of F1 GP

2012-04-21 16:40

Manama - Anti-government protesters have flooded a main highway in a march stretching for miles and security forces have fired tear gas in breakaway clashes as Bahrain's leaders struggle to contain opposition anger while under the world's spotlight as the island nation hosts the Formula One Grand Prix.

The government allowed the massive Friday demonstration in an apparent bid to avoid the hit-and-run street battles that are the hallmark of the Gulf nation's 14-month uprising - and an embarrassing spectacle for Bahrain's Western-backed rulers as F1 teams prepare for Sunday's race.

But violence flared as small groups in the march peeled away from the route to challenge riot police, who answered with volleys of tear gas and stun grenades. Some protesters sought refuge in a mall and nearby shops about 20km north of the Formula One track, where practice runs took place and Bahrain's crown prince vowed the country's premier international event would go ahead.

Last year, a wave of anti-government protests by the island's Shi'ite majority and a crackdown by the Sunni rulers forced organizers to cancel the 2011 Bahrain GP. At least 50 people have been killed since the start of Bahrain's uprising - the longest-running in the Arab Spring - which seeks a greater political voice for Shi'ites and to weaken the near monopoly of the Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than 200 years.

"We demand democracy" and "Down, Down Hamad," chanted some of the tens of thousands of opposition supporters in reference to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, as they massed on the main highway leading out of the capital, Manama. Bahrain's monarchy is the main backer of the F1 race, and the crown prince owns rights to the event.

Hours before the march, Bahrain's most senior Shi'ite cleric, Sheik Isa Qassim, delivered a strongly worded sermon that denounced authorities for making dozens of arrests of suspected dissidents in recent weeks. He called the intensified crackdowns before the F1 event "as if we are entering a war".

Bahrain's rulers lobbied hard to stage this year's Grand Prix as part of attempts to portray stability in the strategic kingdom, which is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet. On the opposite side, rights groups and others campaigned to keep the race away, citing the relentless pressures by security forces and the imprisonment of opposition figures - including a Shi'ite political activist on a more than a two-month-long hunger strike.

The US-based group Physicians for Human Rights, also said it was concerned about the near daily use of tear gas in Bahrain, including in crowded urban areas and homes, and its possible long-term health consequences, including increased rates of miscarriages and birth defects.

Shi'ite demands

"Despite promises of reform since our investigation into the Kingdom last year, the Government's excessive use of force has only increased," said the group's deputy director, Richard Sollom.

The hacking collective Anonymous, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for a denial-of-service attack on the official Formula One website in protest over the running of the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend. Such web attacks work by overwhelming a site with bogus traffic.

Shi'ites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain's population of just over half a million people, but claim they face widespread discrimination and lack opportunities granted to the Sunni minority.

The country's leaders have offered some reforms, but the opposition says they fall short of Shiite demands for a greater voice in the country's affairs and an elected government.

The unrest has put Washington into an awkward position. US officials have called for efforts to reopen political dialogue in Bahrain, but are careful not to press too hard against the nation's leadership and possibly jeopardise its important military ties.

In Washington, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland expressed the Obama administration's concern about "the increase in violence in Bahrain, especially leading up to the Formula 1 race".

"These are unproductive, unhelpful acts in building the kind of meaningful trust and reconciliation that is needed in Bahrain," Nuland told reporters. "We're calling for, again, Bahraini government respect for universal human rights and demonstrators' restraint in ensuring that they are peaceful."

Bahrain's crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, visited the track Friday and rejected any suggestion that the race should be scrapped.

"I think cancelling the race just empowers extremists," he said. "For those of us trying to navigate a way out of this political problem, having the race allows us... to celebrate our nation as an idea that is positive, not one that is divisive."

Clashes take place nearly every day with demonstrators hurling fire bombs and riot police responding with tear gas and sometimes firing birdshot. The main Shi'ite political group, Al Wefaq, says at least 50 people have been injured in the past two days when security forces fired pellets to disperse protesters.

Additional security forces deployed this week, setting up checkpoints on Friday on roads leading to the Bahrain International Circuit and increasing their presence across Manama.

The rulers have depicted the race - expected to draw a worldwide TV audience of about 100 million in 187 countries - as an event that will put the divided society on the path of reconciliation.

"I genuinely believe this race is a force for good, it unites many people from many different religious backgrounds, sects and ethnicities," said the crown prince.

In the past weeks, however, much of the protesters' anger has been directed at the crown prince, who is also the commander of the kingdom's armed forces, which the opposition supporters say have been enforcing the crackdown.

Last year, Salman was tasked to lead a national dialogue aimed at reconciliation between Shi'ite and Sunnis. The talks broke down without any compromise and have not yet resumed.

In Iraq, hard-line Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, denounced Bahrain for staging the grand prix while "blood is being shed" on the island. Al-Sadr also condemned the F1 teams for racing, saying their presence in Bahrain gives "support for injustices and the killings".

As a majority Shi'ite country, Iraq has backed Bahrain's Shi'ite-led protests.

- AP
Read more on:    bahrain  |  uprisings  |  bahrain protests
NEXT ON NEWS24X
SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
6 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
/News
 

Joburg hot spots for cocktails, craft beer, tapas and wine!

It’s the season to be jolly – so we’ve rounded up some new Joburg hot spots!

 
 

I love summer.24

The craziest deaths of 2014
How to make this a sensual, sexy summer!
This is what South Africans Googled in 2014!
This hilarious song is your new holiday anthem

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

2DAYS ONLY – 30% off Appliances

Coffee makers, blenders, fans, juicers and more. T&Cs apply. Shop now!

2 DAYS ONLY – 40% off books

Get 40% off when you buy 2 books. For two days only! T&Cs apply. Buy now!

Up to 50% off on outdoor gear

Save on chairs, blankets, cooler bags, umbrellas and more. Shop now!

Save on Samsung

Cameras, mobile phones, TVs, Tablets and more. While stocks last. Shop now!

Grand Theft Auto 5

Now available on PS4, Xbox One and PC from R649. Buy now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

There is so much going on around you and inside your head. You may want to take your ideas to the next level. Romance may be...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.