International

Clashes in Bahrain on eve of third protest anniversary

Main Shia opposition group says protesters tear-gassed and police in riot gear patrolling streets

Debris burns in the street during a protest Thursday in Malkiya, Bahrain.
Hasan Jamali/AP

Anti-government protesters in Bahrain clashed with police Thursday during the first of three days of protests marking the third anniversary of the country’s Arab Spring–inspired protests that called for democratic reforms in the Sunni-minority-ruled Gulf state.

Clouds of tear gas billowed from the streets of several Shia villages outside the country's capital, Manama, as security forces attempted to dismantle roadblocks of burning tires, according to the news agency Agence France-Presse. 

The opposition, supported by much of Bahrain’s Shia majority, is demanding that the ruling Saudi Arabia–backed Khalifa family, headed by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, surrender its grip on all key cabinet posts in favor of an elected government.

"Down with Hamad," protesters chanted, referring to the king. "Only to Allah we kneel."

The Interior Ministry said police "confronted groups of vandals and cleared blocked roads."

The main Shia opposition party, Al-Wefaq, which has boycotted parliament since the uprising began on Feb. 14, 2011, posted images of protesters being tear-gassed and police in riot gear patrolling deserted streets.

Al-Wefaq said several areas observed a complete shutdown following its call for a strike on Thursday (the last day of the workweek in Bahrain), ahead of a mass rally planned for Saturday.

The underground Feb. 14 youth coalition has called for its supporters on Friday to try to reach Pearl Square, where demonstrators camped for a month before being violently dispersed by Saudi-backed troops in March 2011.

The Pearl Square roundabout and its central monument, which were symbols of the uprising, were razed shortly thereafter, and the site remains heavily restricted.

‘Relentless repression’

The human rights group Amnesty International said on Thursday that "relentless repression of dissent continues unabated" in Bahrain, where protests have been overshadowed by reprisals on dissent in Egypt and Syria. 

"Scores of people, including dozens of children, have been detained for participating in peaceful protests over the last year. Many of them alleged that they were tortured in detention," Amnesty's Said Boumedouha said in a statement. "Protesters must be allowed to take part in peaceful demonstrations without the fear of reprisal or attack."

Two rounds of national reconciliation talks have failed to make headway on a settlement in the tiny but strategic Gulf archipelago, which lies just across the Persian Gulf from Iran and has long provided a base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Crown Prince Salman, who has made several overtures to the opposition, called last month for a third round of national talks.

But many in the opposition say his efforts have been undercut by more hawkish members of the royal family, including his great-uncle Prince Khalifa, who has been prime minister ever since independence from Britain in 1971.

At least 89 people have been killed in the three years since the launch of the uprising, according to the International Federation for Human Rights. Activists report that thousands more have been injured or arrested.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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