Bahrain Protesters Take Control of Main Square

Tuesday, 15 Feb 2011 11:40 AM

 

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Thousands of protesters in Bahrain are filling a main square in the Gulf nation's capital as Egypt-inspired demonstrations gripped the country for a second day.

Security forces appeared to hold back as the crowds poured into Pearl Square in Manama. The dramatic move Tuesday comes just hours after a second protester died in clashes with police in the strategic island kingdom, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Oppositions groups are calling for greater political freedoms and an end to the ruling Sunni monarchy's grip on key decisions and government posts. The nation's majority Shiites have long complained of discrimination.

On Monday, pro-reform marchers clashed with police, leaving one dead.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Security forces in Bahrain fired tear gas and bird shot Tuesday on mourners gathered for a funeral procession for a man killed in Egypt-inspired protests, killing at least one person and sharply raising the chances for further unrest as the Arab push for change reaches the Gulf for the first time.

The tiny island kingdom — home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth fleet — is one of the most politically volatile in the Middle East's most wealthy corner. A prolonged showdown could draw in the region's two biggest rivals: Saudi Arabia, as close allies of Bahrain's Sunni monarchy, and Iran, whose hard-liners have spoken in support of the nation's Shiite majority.

The bloodshed already has brought sharp denunciations from the largest Shiite political bloc, which suspended its participation in parliament, and could threaten the nation's gradual pro-democracy reforms over the past decade.

Despite heavy security, hundreds of demonstrators reached a central square in the capital Manama — calling it their Tahrir, or Liberation, Square after Cairo's main protest site — and vowed to remain to press their demands for greater political freedoms and a weaker grip by the monarchy.

The second day of turmoil began after police attempted to disperse up to 10,000 mourners gathering at a hospital parking lot to begin the funeral procession for a man who died in Monday's marches.

Officials at Bahrain's Salmaniya Medical Complex said a second fatality — a 31-year-old man — came from injuries from bird shot fired during the melee in the hospital's parking lot. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to journalists.

After the clash, riot police eventually withdrew and allowed the massive funeral cortege for 21-year-old Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima to proceed from the hospital, the main state-run medical facility in Bahrain's capital Manama.

Mushaima was killed Monday during clashes with security forces trying to halt marches to demand greater freedoms and political rights. At least 25 people were injured in the barrage of rubber bullets, bird shot and tear gas, family members said.

Police watched from a distance as marchers streamed from the hospital to the Shiite Muslim cemetery about a half-mile (1 kilometer) away. Mourners chanted against the government and some even held aloft portraits of Bahrain's king defaced with an X — a possible signal that their anger could shift toward the monarchy itself.

Bahrain's protesters have claimed they do not seek to overthrow the ruling family but want greater political freedoms and sweeping changes in how the country is run. The demands include transferring more decision-making powers to the parliament and breaking the monarchy's grip on senior government posts.

Bahrain's majority Shiites — about 70 percent of the population — have long complained of systemic discrimination by the Sunni rulers. A crackdown on perceived dissent last year touched off weeks of riots and clashes in Shiite villages.

The main Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq, denounced the "bullying tactics and barbaric policies pursued by the security forces" and said it was suspending its participation in parliament, where it holds 18 of the 40 seats.

The declaration falls short of pulling out the group's lawmakers, which would spark a full-scale political crisis. But Al Wefaq warned that it could take more steps if violence persists against marchers staging the first major rallies in the Gulf since uprisings toppled long-ruling regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. A statement from Bahrain's interior minister, Lt. Gen. Rashid bin Abdulla Al Khalifa, expressed "sincere condolences and deep sympathy" to Mushaima's family. He stressed that the death will be investigated and charges would be filed if authorities determined excessive force was used against the protesters.

But that's unlikely to appease the protesters, whose "day of rage" Monday coincided with major anti-government demonstrations in Iran and Yemen.

In the past week, Bahrain's rulers have attempted to defuse calls for reform by promising nearly $2,700 for each family and pledging to loosen state controls on the media.

State media reported that Bahrain's king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, telephoned the head of Egypt's ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, on Tuesday. No further details were given, but Bahrain had earlier appealed for an emergency summit of Arab leaders to discuss the widening protests.

Bahrain's ruling Sunni dynasty also has extremely close ties with the leadership in Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a causeway. Bahrain has given citizenship to Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and across the region to bolster its ranks against the country's Shiite majority.

Bahrain's Sunni leaders point to parliamentary elections as a symbol of political openness. But many Sunnis in Bahrain also are highly suspicious of Shiite activists, claiming they seek to undermine the state and have cultural bonds with Shiite heavyweight Iran. An ongoing trial in Bahrain accuses 25 Shiites of plotting against the country's leadership.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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