Two people were killed in Bahrain as riot police unleashed rubber bullets and tear gas to drive panicked protesters out of a Manama square, relatives of the dead and the opposition said on Thursday.
Up to 70 protesters were wounded during the sudden overnight operation, including two listed in a serious condition, the opposition said, as security forces cracked down hard on one of a wave of protests roiling the Middle East.
“They attacked the square, where hundreds of people were spending the night in tents,” said one witness, 37-year-old Fadel Ahmad.
At the city’s main Salmaniya hospital, medical staff members were overwhelmed as ambulances and private cars ferried in the injured more than three hours after the assault was launched.
Sobbing women were among relatives of the victims gathered outside.
During the operation, explosions and ambulance sirens could be heard a few hundred metres from the central square, which had been sealed off. Demonstrators fled pursued by security forces, as a helicopter flew overhead.
Refusal to submit to the law
Bahrain’s authorities, defying United States-led appeals for restraint, said they had no choice.
“The security forces evacuated Pearl Square … after having exhausted all chance of dialogue,” interior ministry spokesperson General Tarek al-Hassan said, in a statement from the official news agency BNA.
“Some left the place of their own accord, while others refused to submit to the law, which required an intervention to disperse them,” he said.
By dawn on Thursday, police officers were clearing away the tents as acrid clouds of tear gas hung over the square.
Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition group, the Islamic National Accord Association (INAA), said the riot police had opened fire without warning using rubber bullets and counted up to 70 injured protesters.
Relatives named the victims as Mahmoud Makki Ali (22) and Ali Mansour Ahmad Khoder (52) though they did not indicate the circumstances of their deaths.
The latest deaths bring to four the number of demonstrators killed since the protests began on Monday in response to messages posted on Facebook, following the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
‘Real constitutional monarchy’
Thousands of demonstrators had been occupying Manama’s Pearl Square since Tuesday, after police killed two young Shi’ite demonstrators during anti-government protests.
They had renamed it Tahrir (Liberation) Square, after the area in Cairo that became the focal point of an uprising that finally toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak last Friday after 18 days of nationwide protests.
On Wednesday, thousands of Bahrainis chanted for regime change and a “real constitutional monarchy” after the burial of the second protester.
But the atmosphere had been relaxed as thousands poured into Pearl Square after the funeral. The interior ministry had said it would allow demonstrators to stay in the square, “taking in consideration the feelings” of the people.
Interior Minister Rashed bin Abdullah al-Khalifa had apologised for the earlier deaths, saying suspected police officers were in custody pending an investigation.
‘Respect the universal rights of its citizens’
But the INAA, the largest Shi’ite opposition bloc, said its 18 Members of Parliament would continue a boycott of the 40-member Parliament launched on Tuesday until steps were taken to establish a real constitutional monarchy.
They called for a prime minister elected by the people, not appointed by the king.
Before the latest clashes, the White House said on Wednesday it was watching the developments “very closely” and called on Bahrain’s rulers to allow peaceful anti-government protests.
“Bahrain, like all the countries in the region, needs to respect the universal rights of its citizens, their right to protest, their right to have their grievances heard,” White House spokesperson Jay Carney said.
Bahrain serves as headquarters for a pillar of American military power, the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which commands a rotating flotilla of vessels charged with safeguarding oil shipping lanes in the Gulf and countering Iran.
Former colonial power Britain had also called for restraint. — Sapa-AFP