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Bahraini Forces Launch Full-Scale Assault on Protesters at Pearl Square, Six Killed

March 16, 2011

Bahrain sweeps into protest camp; 6 dead


Associated Press, Mar 16, 6:43 AM EDT

MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) --

Soldiers and riot police used tear gas and armored vehicles Wednesday to drive out hundreds of anti-government protesters occupying a landmark square in Bahrain's capital, a day after emergency rule was imposed in the violence-wracked Gulf kingdom. At least six people were killed, according to witnesses and officials.

The full-scale assault launched at daybreak swept into Pearl Square, which has been the center of uprising against Bahrain's rulers since it began more than a month ago. Stinging clouds of tear gas filled streets and black smoke rose from the square from the protesters' tents set ablaze.

Witnesses said at least two protesters were killed when the square was stormed. Officials at Ibn Nafees Hospital said a third protester later died from gunshot wounds in his back. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals from authorities.

Meanwhile, Bahrain state TV also reported that two policemen died when they were hit by a vehicle after anti-government protesters were driven out. The Interior Ministry also at least one other policeman was killed, but did not give the cause.

It was unclear whether the offensive included soldiers from other Gulf nations who were dispatched to help Bahrain's Sunni monarchy, which has been under relentless pressure from the country's majority Shiite Muslims to give up its monopoly on power.

But state TV broadcast video showing military vehicles in the square flying Bahrain's red-and-white flag as security officials moved through the wreckage of the encampment, set up at the base of a towering monument to the country's history as a pearl diving center. The video showed the ground littered with debris, including satellite dishes and charred tent poles.

Helicopters crisscrossed over the square, which was cleared by security forces late last month but was later retaken by protesters after a deadly confrontation with army units.

Protesters fled for cover into side streets and security forces blocked main roads into Manama. Mobile phones were apparently jammed in central Manama during the height of the attack and Internet service was at a crawl.

Hamid Zuher, a 32-year-old protester who slept at the square, said riot police first moved in on foot through a haze of tear gas, firing in the air.

"They fired tear gas and then opened fire," Zuher said. "We lifted our arms and started saying 'Peaceful, Peaceful.' Then we had to ran away. There was so much tear gas and shooting."

In Shiite villages, people went to mosques to pray in a sign of protest against the Pearl Square crackdown. Others lit fires in anger. Clashes were reported in other mostly Shiite areas of the country, where traffic was tightly controlled by military forces in an apparent attempt to prevent protest gatherings or a surge of people toward the capital.

The roadblock also kept protesters possibly injured in the Pearl Square raid from reaching the main state hospital, which was working on generator power. The extent of the blackout in Manama was not immediately clear.

The official Bahrain news agency said the emergency rule bans "rallies and disrupting the public order" and imposes "movement restrictions" and possible curfews in some locations.

For Bahrain's authorities, clearing Pearl Square would be more of a symbolic blow against protesters than a strategic victory as opposition groups are still be able to mobilize marches and other actions against the leadership.

Bahrain's king on Tuesday declared a three-month state of emergency and instructed the military to battle unrest in the strategic nation, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Shortly after the announcement, clashes erupted across the island nation, killing at least two civilians. Saudi officials also said one of it's soldiers was killed.

Bahrain's sectarian clash is increasingly viewed as an extension of the region's rivalries between the Gulf Arab leaders and Shiite powerhouse Iran. Washington, too, is pulled deeply into the Bahrain's conflict because of it's key naval base - the Pentagon's main Gulf counterweight to Iran's growing military ambitions.

On Tuesday, Iran and it's allied force in Lebanon, Hezbollah, denounced the presence of foreign soldiers in Bahrain. Iran has no direct political links with Bahrain's main Shiite groups, but Iranian hard-liner in the past have called the tiny island nation that "14th Province" of the Islamic Republic.

Gulf rulers, particularly Saudi Arabia, fear that the collapse of Bahrain's Sunni monarchy could embolden further revolts across the region and embolden the Saudi Shiite minority whose home region is connected to Bahrain by a causeway.

The state of emergency in the U.S.-backed regime gives Bahrain's military chief wide authority to battle protesters demanding political reforms and equal rights for the majority Shiites.

Also Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rhodium Clinton expressed alarm over "provocative acts and sectarian violence," and said she telephoned Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saudi to stress the need for the foreign forces to promote dialogue.

"We call for calm and restraint on all sides in Bahrain," Clinton told reporters in Cairo, where she was urging on democratic currents that chased Egypt's Hosni Mubarak from power last month.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon authorized military family members and civilians with non-emergency jobs to leave Bahrain as violence spread. A spokeswoman for Bahrain's Gulf Air, Noof Buallay, said flights were operating normally at Manama's airport.

The intervention of more than 1,000 Saudi-led troops from several Gulf nations was the first major cross-border military action to challenge one of the revolts sweeping across the Arab world. The Al Khalifa family has ruled Bahrain for 200 years.

The foreign troops are from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council's Peninsula Shield Force. The bloc is made up of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates - all largely Sunni countries that have nervously watched the Arab world's protests. The Saudi government on Tuesday withdrew accreditation to the chief Reuters correspondent there, complaining about a recent report on a protest in the kingdom. Reuters stood by its coverage.

Iran denounced the foreign intervention as "unacceptable" and predicted it would complicate the kingdom's political crisis.

A senior Bahraini foreign affairs official, Hamad al-Amer, called the remarks "blatant intervention in internal Bahraini affairs" and said Iran's ambassador to Bahrain was summoned to the Foreign Ministry.

A security official in Saudi Arabia said a Saudi sergeant was shot and killed by a protester in Bahrain's capital, Manama. No other details were immediately given on the death of the soldier, identified as Sgt. Ahmed al-Raddadi. The Saudi official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.


Bahrain forces launch crackdown on protesters

By Lin Noueihed

MANAMA | Wed Mar 16, 2011 8:06am EDT

MANAMA (Reuters) -

Bahraini forces, backed by helicopters, fired tear gas in a crackdown on protesters on Wednesday, clearing hundreds from a camp that had become the symbol of an uprising by the island's Shi'ite Muslim majority.

Hospital sources said three policemen and two protesters were killed in the assault that began a day after Bahrain declared martial law to quell worsening sectarian unrest that has sucked in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbor Saudi Arabia.

But a defiant youth movement, which had been leading the Bahraini protests, called for a mass demonstration from all Manama suburbs toward Budaya Street in the north of the capital. Earlier a Bahraini defense official warned Bahrainis not to gather in public, saying it was for public safety.

A member of parliament from the largest Shi'ite Muslim opposition group denounced the government assault as a declaration of war on the Shi'ite community.

"This is war of annihilation. This does not happen even in wars and this is not acceptable," Abdel Jalil Khalil, the head of Wefaq's 18-member parliament bloc, said.

"I saw them fire live rounds, in front of my own eyes."

He said at least five people had been killed by security forces who fanned out across the capital Manama. There was no independent confirmation.

The United States, a close ally of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, has called for restraint in the island kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. It sent U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman to Bahrain to push for talks to resolve the crisis.

Over 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi'ites who complain of discrimination at the hands of the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family. Calls for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed the Sunni minority, which fears that unrest could serve non-Arab Shi'ite power Iran.

Helicopters flew overhead and riot police fired teargas as they advanced from about 7 a.m. on the Pearl roundabout, focal point of weeks of protests. Youths hurled petrol bombs at police near the roundabout and scattered as new rounds of teargas hit. The area was cleared within about two hours but protesters knocked down two police in their cars as they fled.

Wearing semi-automatic rifles and black face masks, Bahraini troops also blocked off several streets including the main road to the Shi'ite area of Sitra. Streets were deserted, shops were closed and people queued at cash machines.

"There are shots near and far. It's not only shooting in the air, it's urban warfare," said a resident who lives near the Budaya Highway in the northwest of Bahrain, adding that forces had cut off three bridges linking Bahrain's airport, on Muharraq island, to the main island.

Riot police blocked access to Manama's Salmaniya hospital, where many civilian casualties had previously been treated, and witnesses said access to other health centers was also blocked.

It did not appear that Gulf Arab forces invited in by the government for support were involved in the operation.


The crackdown by Bahrain's Sunni-led government against Shi'ite protesters has galvanized Iraq's own Shi'ite community, exacerbating the sectarian tension that led to years of war in Iraq.

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for mass demonstrations in Baghdad and Basra on Wednesday in support of mainly-Shi'ite demonstrators in Bahrain.

Bahrain has been gripped by its worst unrest since the 1990s after protesters took to the streets last month, inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

But the latest crackdown raised the stakes in the crisis between the country's Shi'ite majority and its dominant Sunni minority, and with the arrival of Saudi troops highlighted that the conflict in Bahrain is part the region's hostilities between Sunni Gulf Arab countries and non-Arab Shi'ite Iran.

Unlike those countries, where the mainly Sunni populations united against the regime, Bahrain is split along sectarian lines, raising the risk of a slide into civil conflict.

Violent clashes between youths wielding clubs, knives and rocks have become daily occurrences, forcing Bahrain University and many schools to close in order to avoid further trouble.

Metal barricades and piles of rocks have blocked the main road since and most shops in Bahrain have been shut.

Thousands of protesters had been camped out at the Pearl roundabout. On Sunday, they overwhelmed police and blocked a main thoroughfare leading to the financial area, crippling the economy and shaking the world's top oil-exporting region.

Bahrain's stock market was closed due to the state of emergency, a day after Fitch downgraded Bahrain's sovereign ratings by two notches due to the unrest.

Bahrain 5-yr credit default swaps tightened 7 basis points to 350 basis points on Wednesday, according to Markit data.

In London, Standard Chartered and HSBC Holdings -- two of the leading foreign banks in the country -- said they have closed all their branches in Bahrain on Wednesday. Both banks said their priority was the safety of staff.

The British embassy upgraded the travel warning on its website on Wednesday as the security situation deteriorated and residents trying to flee said flights out of Bahrain were full.

The United Nations and Britain have echoed the U.S. call for restraint and the Group of Eight powers expressed concern, though analysts said the escalation showed the limits of U.S. influence when security was threatened.

The unrest prompted Bahraini officials to issue stark warnings on Tuesday that the three-month state of martial law could mean imposing a curfew, evacuating areas and dispersing gatherings.

As protesters fled, Bahraini security forces in light armored personnel carriers began to clear the makeshift roadblocks. Refuse disposal trucks moved in to remove the debris and tents, some of which protesters set on fire as they left. Police opened cars that were left behind by fleeing protesters.

As demonstrators fled to nearby suburbs, black smoke was rising from the Shi'ite area of Sanabis but the source of the smoke was unclear. Small blasts occasionally reverberated through the capital Manama, but the source was also unclear.

Human Rights Watch urged Bahrain to exercise restraint.

"King Hamad's decree does not give the authorities a blank check to commit abuses," said Joe Stork of HRW.

(Additional reporting by Frederik Richter; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)



Key facts about Bahrain 7:10am EDT

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Bahrain imposes curfew, bans all gatherings 8:04am EDT

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 Bahrain's Shi'ite opposition condemns martial law 1:28am EDT

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