By HADEEL AL-SHALCHI, Associated Press Feb. 17, 2011
MANAMA, Bahrain – Riot police firing tear gas and wielding clubs stormed a
landmark square occupied by anti-government protesters Thursday, driving
out demonstrators and destroying a makeshift encampment that had become
the hub for demands to bring sweeping political changes to the kingdom.
The main opposition group Al Wefaq said at least two people were killed in
the pre-dawn assault on Pearl Square, which was littered with flattened
tents, trampled banners and broken glass. There was no official word on
deaths or injuries, but hospitals reported dozens of people being brought
in with wounds and respiratory problems from the tear gas.
Hours after police retook control of the plaza, the tiny island nation was
in lockdown mode. Police checkpoints were set up along main roadways and
armed patrols moved through neighborhoods in an apparent attempt to thwart
any mass gatherings.
Barbed wire was put up around Pearl Square and a message from the Interior
Ministry declared the protest camp "illegal." The air still carried the
smell of tear gas more than four hours after the assault.
The blow by authorities marked a dramatic shift in tactics. It appeared
Bahrain's leaders had sought to rein in security forces after clashes
Monday that left at least two people dead and brought sharp criticism from
Western allies — including the U.S. — which operates its main naval base
in the Gulf from Bahrain.
Police held back Wednesday as tens of thousands of protesters crowded into
the seaside square, dominated by a 300-foot (90-meter) monument to
Bahrain's history as a pearl diving center.
After the crackdown early Thursday, protesters who were camped in the
square overnight described police swarming in through a cloud of
eye-stinging tear gas.
"They attacked our tents, beating us with batons," said Jafar Jafar, 17.
"The police were lined up at the bridge overhead. They were shooting tear
gas from the bridge."
Click image to see photos of protests in Bahrain
Hussein Abbas, 22, was awakened by a missed call on his cell phone from
his wife, presumably trying to warn him about reports that police were
preparing to move in.
"Then all of a sudden the square was filled with tear gas clouds. Our
women were screaming. ... What kind of ruler does this to his people?
There were women and children with us!"
One man said he pretended to be unconscious to avoid further beatings from
ABC News said its correspondent, Miguel Marquez, was caught in the crowd
and beaten by men with billy clubs, although he was not badly injured.
The Egypt-inspired protests began Monday as a cry for the country's Sunni
monarchy to loosen its grip, including hand-picking most top government
posts, and open more opportunities for the country's majority Shiites, who
have long complained of being blocked from decision-making roles or key
posts in the military.
But the uprising's demands have steadily grown bolder. Many protesters
called for the government to provide more jobs and better housing, free
all political detainees and abolish a system that offers Bahraini
citizenship to Sunnis from around the Middle East as a way to close the
population gap with Shiites, who account for 70 percent of the population.
Many of the newly minted nationals get jobs in security forces to further
cement the number of presumed loyalists protecting the ruling system.
Increasingly, protesters also chanted slogans to wipe away the entire
ruling dynasty that has led Bahrain for more than 200 years and is firmly
backed by the Sunni sheiks and monarchs across the Gulf.
Although Bahrain is sandwiched between OPEC heavyweights Saudi Arabia and
Qatar, it has limited oil resources and depends heavily on its role as a
regional financial hub and playground for Saudis, who can drive over a
causeway to enjoy Bahrain's Western-style bars, hotels and beaches.
Social networking websites had been abuzz Wednesday with calls to press
ahead with the protests. They were matched by insults from presumed
government backers who called the demonstrators traitors and agents of
Shiite powerhouse Iran. Some pointed out that Iranian hard-liners have
called Bahrain the Islamic Republic's "14th province" because of its
The protest movement's next move is unclear, but the island nation has
been rocked by street battles as recently as last summer. A wave of
arrests of perceived Shiite dissidents touched off weeks of rioting and
Before the attack on the square, protesters had called for major rallies
after Friday prayers. The reported deaths, however, could become a fresh
rallying point. Thousands of mourners had turned out for the funeral
processions of two other people killed in the protests earlier in the
Mahmoud Mansouri, whose pants were torn in the mayhem, 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."
The country's rulers scheduled an emergency parliament session for later
Thursday. But it may only serve to highlight the country's divisions and
reinforce its image as the most politically volatile in the Gulf.
The main Shiite opposition bloc, with 18 of the 40 seats, has said it will
not return to the chamber until the protest demands are met.
The occupation in Pearl Square, which began Tuesday, had become the nerve
center of the first anti-government protests to reach the Arab Gulf since
the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Just hours before police moved in, the mood in the makeshift tent city was
festive and confident.
People sipped tea, ate donated food and smoked apple- and grape-flavored
tobacco from water pipes. The men and women mainly sat separately — the
women a sea of black in their traditional dress. Some youths wore the
red-and-white Bahraini flag as a cape.
After prayers Wednesday evening, a Shiite imam in the square had urged
Bahrain's youth not to back down.
"This square is a trust in your hands and so will you whittle away this
trust or keep fast?" the imam said. "So be careful and be concerned for
your country and remember that the regime will try to rip this country
from your hand but if we must leave it in coffins then so be it!"
Across the city, government supporters in a caravan of cars waved national
flags and displayed portraits of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
"Come join us!" they yelled into markets and along busy streets. "Show
Earlier Wednesday, thousands of mourners turned out for the funeral
procession of 31-year-old Fadhel al-Matrook, the second known fatality
from the protests. Later, in Pearl Square, his father Salman pleaded with
protesters not to give up.
"He is not only my son. He is the son of Bahrain, the son of this nation,"
he yelled. "His blood shouldn't be wasted."
The bloodshed has brought embarrassing rebukes from allies such as Britain
and the United States. A statement from Bahrain's Interior Ministry said
suspects have been "placed in custody" in connection with the two
protester deaths from earlier in the week, but gave no further details.
The widening challenges to the region's political order — emboldened by
the downfall of old-guard regimes in Tunisia and Egypt — also flared
elsewhere in Arab world.
In Yemen, the embattled president flooded the ancient capital of Sanaa
with more than 2,000 security forces to try to stamp out demonstrations
that began nearly a week ago. They turned deadly Wednesday in the southern
port of Aden, with two people killed in clashes with police.
In Libya, security forces fired rubber bullets and water cannons at
hundreds of marchers in Benghazi, the second-largest city. Witnesses said
some police stations were set on fire and one protester said he saw
snipers on a roof of a security headquarters firing on protesters.
The unrest was triggered by the temporary detention Tuesday of an activist
but quickly turned into a rare public challenge to the 42-year rule of
Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.