BEIRUT (AP) — A prominent Bahraini opposition leader was returning home Saturday after months of exile, and urged the rulers of the tiny Gulf nation to be responsive to demands for more political freedoms.
The return of Hassan Mushaima, a senior Shiite figure, could mark a new phase for an anti-government movement in the strategic Gulf nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Mushaima had spent several months in voluntary exile in London, and was heading Saturday from Lebanon to Bahrain. He is head of a Shiite group known as Haq, which is considered more hard-line than the main Shiite political bloc that has so far led two weeks of protests.
Mushaima said he would begin a dialogue with various political factions "so that we may find common ground regarding the demands of the Bahraini people."
Any attempt by authorities in Bahrain to restrict his movements would only inflame tensions there, Mushaima said in a telephone interview from Beirut airport.
He urged the Bahraini government to be responsive to the demands of the protesters. "There are young people who sacrificed and offered up martyrs and are ready to offer up more. We must respect their calls for change," he said.
Mushaima declined to elaborate on his party's demands, saying he will be making a speech to supporters upon arrival in Bahrain.
The Bahraini opposition currently appears divided over whether to demand an end to the Sunni monarchy or offer it a chance to remain in exchange for handing powers to the elected parliament.
Mushaima said the current situation in Bahrain is no longer feasible.
Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahraini's 525,000 people, but have long complained of systematic discrimination and other abuses by the Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries.
Mushaima had been among a group of Shiite activists accused of plotting to overthrow Bahrain's Sunni rulers.
His planned return to Bahrain was stalled when his passport was confiscated in Beirut on an Interpol warrant Tuesday. But Bahraini authorities suspended the trial this week, and Lebanon returned his passport Friday.
A Bahraini government spokeswoman has said that Mushaima will not be arrested if he returns to Bahrain.
Bahrain is the first Gulf state to be thrown into turmoil by the Arab world's wave of change. The unrest is highly significant for Washington because Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which is the Pentagon's main counterweight against Iran's widening military ambitions.
Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters filled Bahrain's capital Friday to boost pressure for sweeping political concessions.
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