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Bahrain protesters back in square, talks expected

Opposition expected to present demands – source; Demands include prisoner release, cabinet change; Crown prince: Protesters can stay at Pearl Square

February 20, 2011 3:07 by

Thousands of Bahraini protesters set up a tent city in a Manama square that has come to symbolise their cause, some calling on Sunday for immediate political change and others hoping for talks to resolve the crisis.
Many are starting to call Pearl Square “Martyrs’ Circle”, in memory of the four killed in Thursday’s night-time raid by riot police to clear the area.
Protesters swept back in late on Saturday after Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa ordered troops and armoured vehicles to withdraw, and said he would lead a national dialogue after days of unrest that left six dead.
“We will not sit down with murderers. No to dialogue!” one woman shouted, as people handed out bread, fruit and juice.
Along with a medical centre and lost-and-found department, tents were being organised and portable toilets brought in.
Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family, whose members dominate a cabinet led by the king’s uncle, who has been premier for 40 years.
Shi’ite Muslims account for about 70 percent of the population but feel they have no part in decision-making and face discrimination over state jobs and housing. The seven-year-old parliament acts as a safety valve and the rulers have used their oil wealth to defuse Shi’ite frustrations.
The opposition was expected to put its demands to the crown prince on Sunday, and the Shi’ite party Wefaq repeated its demands for a constitutional monarchy and a directly elected government.
It also wants the withdrawal of security forces, the release of political prisoners and talks on a new constitution, an opposition source, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
“All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table,” Crown Prince Salman told CNN, adding the king had appointed him to lead talks and build trust with all sides.
“I think there is a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, and on that note I would like to extend my condolences to all of the families who lost loved ones and all of those who have been injured. We are terribly sorry and this is a terrible tragedy for our nation,” he said.
Inspired by popular revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, many had hoped that Pearl Square would become a symbol of resistance just as Cairo’s Tahrir Square became a focal point of people power.
The crown prince said protesters would “absolutely” be allowed to stay in the square.
Normal life appeared to be returning to the city, with cars moving smoothly along open roads and people walking into shops.
On Saturday, the crown prince suggested the unrest was the result of a lack of action in response to Shi’ite demands. “We want to correct this situation and prevent its repetition,” he told Al Arabiya television.
“The protesters in Pearl Roundabout represent a very significant proportion of our society and our political belief,” the crown prince told CNN.
“But there are other forces at work here. This is not Egypt and this is not Tunisia. And what we don’t want to do, like in Northern Ireland, is to descend into militia warfare or sectarianism,” he said in the interview, aired late on Saturday.
Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which fears unrest among its Shi’ite minority, said it was following developments in Bahrain with interest and hoped for the return of peace and stability, the official news agency SPA reported.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands with all its power behind the state and the people of Bahrain,” SPA quoted the official as saying.
Protesters in Bahrain have tried to avoid actions that would give them a sectarian image, waving the national red-and-white Bahraini flag and chanting slogans such as: “There are no Sunnis or Shi’ites, just Bahraini unity.”
One Sunni protester said she stood in solidarity with fellow Shi’ite protesters, and called for political reform.
“Bahrain is a wealthy country. So where does the money go? They have palaces of forbidden money,” said Fatima Seyadi, 25, who described herself as a liberal Sunni.
“We want a parliament with real authority. We want to elect the ministers of our country,” Seyadi said. “This is not a Shia matter. We want a constitutional monarchy and there is nothing religious about these demands.”
By Cynthia Johnston and Frederik Richter. Additional reporting by Michael Georgy; editing by Tim Pearce)

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