Bahrain reform urged as protesters stand firm

Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim ruling family came under increased pressure to open in-depth negotiations with the Shi’ite-led opposition on Sunday, as protesters erected more tents on the capital’s Pearl Square.

Dozens of workers also joined the protesters, and more than 1 000 medics marched on the square to demand the resignation of the health minister, whom they accused of slowing aid to protesters during a deadly police crackdown.

After nightfall, an Agence France-Presse correspondent reported thousands more people converging on the roundabout, which has been the focal point of demonstrations that have rocked the small but strategic Gulf kingdom since February 14.

An early morning raid on the square on Thursday resulted in the deaths of four people and was followed by the army deploying there.

But protesters flocked back on Saturday after the army was ordered to return to base.

Riot police fired tear gas in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse them but then withdrew as Crown Prince Salman, deputy commander of the armed forces, ordered police and troops to hold back.

After their first night since returning to the square passed peacefully, protesters erected more tents on Sunday afternoon, signalling they were not planning to leave any time soon.

Tahar, one student who had stayed up overnight to guard the square, told AFP that the night had passed peacefully.

But “we are frightened that the security forces will launch another surprise attack like they did on Thursday”, he added.

With the focus switching to talks rather than clashes, however, Bahrain’s main trade union called off a general strike it had organised for Monday, saying its main demand for the right to demonstrate peacefully had been met.

“In the light of the army’s withdrawal and respect of the right to demonstrate peacefully, the general union for labour syndicates has decided to suspend the general strike and return to work on Monday,” the union said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged reforms in Washington’s tiny Shi’ite-majority Gulf ally, where the US Fifth Fleet is based, calling violence against anti-regime protesters “absolutely unacceptable”.

“Bahrain had started on some reform and we want to see them get back to that as quickly as possible,” she told ABC’s This Week programme on Sunday in an interview recorded on Friday.

The heir to the throne has been tasked by his father, King Hamad, with launching a wide-reaching dialogue with the opposition.

But emboldened by Arab uprisings which have toppled the strongmen of Tunisia and Egypt since last month, the opposition has raised the stakes, demanding a “real constitutional monarchy” and the government’s resignation.

‘Those responsible must be judged’
Prime Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, an uncle of the king, has held office since independence from Britain in 1971 and is widely despised by the opposition.

“The government that was unable to protect its people must quit and those responsible for the massacres must be judged,” said Abdel Jalil Khalil Ibrahim, head of the parliamentary bloc of INAA, Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition group.

“The opposition does not refuse dialogue but they ask for a platform that is favourable to dialogue.”

Another INAA MP, Ali al-Aswad, told AFP that opposition groups had held talks to “prepare a document summarising their positions”, including forming a committee to draw up a new constitution to be put to a referendum.

The United States has said that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon on Saturday spoke to the crown prince, urging him to respect human rights and launch “meaningful” reforms.

“As a long-standing partner of Bahrain, the United States believes that the stability of Bahrain depends upon respect for the universal rights of the people of Bahrain, and a process of meaningful reform,” it said.

Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, voiced its “absolute rejection” of foreign meddling in Bahraini affairs, pledging to stand by its neighbour.

And Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, partners with Manama in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, urged the opposition to heed government calls for dialogue.

Prince Salman himself acknowledged the need for reform but called for calm first. “There are clear messages from the Bahraini people … about the need for reforms,” he said in a television interview.

A large banner erected by protesters in Pearl Square insisted: “We do not accept dialogue with any of the murderers,” while another read “Khalifa, Go!” in reference to the veteran prime minister.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said it was vital that the promised dialogue “should begin without delay.”

In a telephone call to the crown prince, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he expressed “the UK’s deep concern about the situation and strong disapproval of the use of live ammunition against protesters”.

The unrest has also cast doubt on next month’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, with Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone saying it may be moved to a later date. – AFP

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