Thursday, February 17, 2011
Armed patrols and tanks appeared in the streets of Bahrain's capital for the first time Thursday after anti-riot police with tear gas and shotguns drove protesters from a main square where they had demanded political change in this tiny kingdom. Medical officials said four people were killed.
Hours after the attack on Manama's main Pearl Square, the military announced on state TV that it had "key parts" of the capital under its control and that gatherings were banned.
"The grief is turning to anger very rapidly here," NPR's Peter Kenyon reported from the capital.
The assault came early 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."
Police cars with flashing blue lights encircled Pearl Square, 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 island nation was effectively shut down, as workers in the capital could not pass checkpoints or were too scared to venture out. Banks and other key institutions did not open.
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.
A body covered in a white sheet lay in a pool of blood on the side of a road about 20 yards from the landmark square. Police cleared away the wrecked tents, and the street was littered with broken glass, tear gas canisters and other debris.
The Interior Ministry declared the protests illegal and warned people to stay off the streets, but demonstrators vowed to return. Bahrain's Parliament — minus opposition lawmakers who are staging a boycott — met in emergency session. One pro-government member, Jamila Salman, broke into tears.
Protesters began camping out Tuesday on the square beneath the 300-foot monument featuring a giant pearl, making it the nerve center of the first anti-government rallies to reach the Arab Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
Wounded streamed by the dozens into Salmaniya medical center, the main state-run hospital in Manama, with serious gaping wounds, broken bones and respiratory problems from the tear gas. Hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, said four people were killed early Thursday.
The scene at Salmaniya was one of stunned disbelief that the government — which had been talking of a peaceful resolution of protesters' demands just hours before — had ordered police to clear the square, NPR's Kenyon reported.
At the hospital mortuary, Kenyon said, he saw "one of the more gruesome sights in 10 years of covering the Middle East ... a man lying on a gurney, the top of his head was literally blown off."
The man, a driver named Issa Abdel Hassan, was shot and killed by police at point-blank range as he tried to reach the square during the crackdown, his son told NPR.
Several paramedics who were receiving medical treatment said they had been pulled from their ambulance and beaten. Outside the medical complex, dozens of protesters chanted: "The regime must go."
Tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen on some streets — the first sign of military involvement in the crisis — and authorities sent a text message to cell 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."
The protesters' demands have two main objectives: force the ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over top 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.
Tiny Bahrain also is a pillar of Washington's military framework in the region. It hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which is 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 hard-liners in Iran have often expressed kinship and support for Bahrain's Shiite majority, which accounts for 70 percent of the island's 500,000 citizens.
As Thursday's crackdown began, demonstrators in the square 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."
Many families were separated in the chaos. An Associated Press photographer saw police rounding up lost children and taking them into vehicles.
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!"
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 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 demonstrations.
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 turned out Wednesday for the funeral procession of 31-year-old Fadhel al-Matrook, one of two people killed Monday in 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."
Monday's bloodshed 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 deaths but gave no further details.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reported from Manama, Bahrain, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.