Two dead as Bahrain police break up protest camp
More than 50 armoured vehicles head toward square.
February 17, 2011 10:03 by Reuters
Bahraini police stormed a protest camp in a central Manama square early on Thursday, killing at least two people, and armoured vehicles rumbled through the capital as the government tried to quell three days of protest.
“Police are coming, they are shooting teargas at us,” one demonstrator told Reuters by telephone as police tried to disperse demonstrators. Another said: “I am wounded, I am bleeding. They are killing us.”
Later, more than 50 armoured vehicles rolled down a highway toward Pearl Square, a road junction that demonstrators sought to turn into the base of a long-running protest like that at Cairo’s Tahrir Square which led to the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Including last night’s deaths overnight, at least four have died since protests flared up this week.
Thousands of overwhelmingly Shi’ite protesters, emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to Bahrain’s streets this week demanding more say in the Gulf Arab kingdom where a Sunni Muslim family rules over a majority Shi’ite population.
“This is real terrorism,” said Abdul Jalil Khalil, a parliamentarian from the main Shi’ite opposition Wefaq bloc. “Whoever took the decision to attack the protest was aiming to kill.”
From a distance, the square appeared nearly empty of protesters early on Thursday after police moved in. Abandoned tents, blankets and rubbish dotted the area, and the smell of teargas wafted through the air.
One protester said he had driven away two people who had been wounded by rubber bullets.
A teenager shepherded a sobbing woman into a car, saying she had been separated from her 2-year-old daughter in the chaos. At a main hospital, about 200 people gathered to mourn and protest.
“I was there… The men were running away, but the women and kids could not run as easily, some are still inside (the square),” said Ibrahim Mattar, a parliamentarian from Wefaq, which has walked out of parliament and was due to meet on Thursday to decide a response.
“It is confirmed two have died,” he said. “More are in critical condition.”
Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said on Twitter that security forces had “cleared Pearl roundabout” of demonstrators, and that a section of a main road was temporarily blocked.
On Wednesday the party demanded a new constitution that would move the country toward democracy.
“We’re not looking for a religious state. We’re looking for a civilian democracy … in which people are the source of power, and to do that we need a new constitution,” the group’s general secretary Sheikh Ali Salman told a news conference.
The religious divide that separates Bahrain’s ruling family from most of its subjects has led to sporadic unrest since the 1990s, and Bahrain’s stability is being closely watched as protest movements blow through North Africa and the Middle East.
It is considered the state most vulnerable to popular unrest in a Gulf Arab region where, in an unwritten pact, rulers have traded a share of their oil wealth for political submission.
Regional power Saudi Arabia, and the United States — which bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain — both view the ruling Khalifa family as a bulwark against Shi’ite Iran.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa introduced a new constitution giving Bahrainis more political rights a decade ago, but the opposition says he has not gone far enough to introduce democracy. Most of the cabinet are still members of his family.
Protesters have called for him to fire his uncle, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been prime minister since the modern state was founded in 1971. Wefaq members say they want elections for prime minister.
Protesters’ wrath had already been stirred up by the deaths of two of their number during this week’s demonstrations, the second killed in clashes at the funeral of the first.
“The people demand the fall of the regime!” protesters chanted outside the hospital.
Protesters who on Wednesday had expressed confidence they were secure in the square, said they had no idea their encampment would be broken up. Opposition parliamentarian Sayed Hadi said dozens were wounded.
“There was no single warning. It was like attacking an enemy. People were sleeping peacefully,” one demonstrator said, declining to be named.
King Hamad has expressed condolences to relatives of the two dead men killed on Monday and Tuesday and said a committee would investigate. His government says it has detained people suspected of blame for the deaths.
(Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Matthew Jones)