At least four people were killed in Bahrain after riot police with tear gas and clubs drove protesters from a main square where they had demanded sweeping political change in this tiny kingdom.
Armed patrols prowled neighbourhoods and tanks appeared in the streets for the first time today after the crackdown in Pearl Square, Manama, the site of anti-government rallies since Monday.
Barbed wire was set up on streets leading to the square, where police cleaned up flattened protest tents and trampled banners. The interior ministry declared the protest camp “illegal” and warned Bahrainis to stay off the streets.
The island nation was effectively shut down since workers in the capital could not pass checkpoints or were too scared to venture out. Banks and other key institutions did not open.
The protesters’ demands have two main objectives: force the ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over senior government posts and all critical decisions, and address deep grievances held by the country’s majority Shiites who claim they face systematic discrimination and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.
Bahrain is a pillar of Washington’s military framework in the region. It hosts the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, a critical counterbalance to Iran’s efforts to expand its clout in the region.
Any prolonged crisis opens the door for a potential flashpoint between Iran and its Arab rivals in the Gulf. Bahrain’s ruling Sunni dynasty is closely allied to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab regimes in the Gulf. But Shiite hardliners in Iran have often expressed kinship and support for Bahrain’s Shiite majority, which accounts for 70% of the island’s 500,000 citizens.
Sporadic clashes between police and protesters continued in the morning, with demonstrators hurling rocks, then retreating. A group of young men broke up the pavement for more stones to throw.
Demonstrators began camping out on Tuesday on the square beneath the 300ft monument featuring a giant pearl, making it the nerve centre of the first anti-government protests to reach the Arab Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The police assault came early on Thursday with little warning.
Mahmoud Mansouri, a protester, said police surrounded the camp and then quickly moved in. “We yelled, ’We are peaceful! Peaceful!’. The women and children were attacked just like the rest of us,” he said. “They moved in as soon as the media left us. They knew what they’re doing.”
Dr Sadek Akikri, 44, said he was tending to injured protesters at a makeshift medical tent in the square when the police stormed in. He said he was tied up and severely beaten, then thrown on a bus with others.
He said the police beating him spoke Urdu, the main language of Pakistan. A pillar of the protest demands is to end the Sunni regime’s practice of giving citizenship to other Sunnis from around the region to try to offset the demographic strength of Shiites. Many of the new Bahrainis are given security posts.
Hospital officials said four people were killed early today. The wounded streamed by the dozens into Salmaniya medical centre, the main state-run hospital in Manama, with serious gaping wounds, broken bones and respiratory problems from the tear gas.
Outside the medical complex, dozens of protesters chanted: “The regime must go.”
Tanks and armoured personnel carriers were seen on some streets – the first sign of military involvement in the crisis – and authorities sent a text message to mobile phones that said: “The Ministry of the Interior warns all citizens and residents not to leave the house due to potential conflict in all areas of Bahrain.”