Friday, February 18, 2011

Bahrain Tense Amid Mass Funerals; More Reported Killed by Military

Bahrain tense amid funerals

Military keeps capital Manama under lockdown, a day after a deadly police assault on anti-government demonstrators

Last Modified: 18 Feb 2011 11:46 GMT

Troops and tanks have locked down Manama, the Bahraini capital, and a ban has been announced on public gatherings as pro-reform supporters bury their dead, a day after a violent security crackdown.

Tanks and armoured personnel carriers were patrolling the streets of Manama on Friday, where checkpoints have been set up by the country's military.

Riot police using clubs and tear gas broke up a crowd of protesters in the city's financial district in a pre-dawn swoop on Thursday, killing at least four people.

Al Jazeera's correspondent, who cannot be named for security reasons, reported from Manama on Friday that thousands of people observed the funerals of three people killed in the police raid on the protesters' tents in the city's Pearl Roundabout area.

Many of those present chanted slogans against Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family. They said they were both grief-stricken and angry at the heavy-handedness of the police, and that they were demanding that the international community take notice of what they call the brutality of the security forces.

As Friday prayers commenced, Sheikh Issa Qassem, a prominent Bahraini Shia Muslim religious leader, delivering his sermon in a northwestern village, described Thursday's violence as a "massacre".

Our correspondent reported that Qassem said the government was attempting to create a "sectarian divide" between Sunnis and Shias. He advocated peaceful protests, saying "violence is the way of the government", and that protesters should not espouse violent actions.

The crowd at the funerals in Sitra were not as large as those seen during previous funerals, our correspondent reported.

He said this was because of a heavy security presence on the streets, with police and army closing off roads across the country.

No security forces personnel were reported to be present at Sitra on Friday, though a helicopter was seen hovering over the funeral procession.

"Many of those who in the past came out [to protests] ... are afraid. They're frightened and they don't want to turn up at a protest like this because they are fearful for their lives," he said, citing an incident on February 15 in Manama, when at least one person was killed when police fired on a funeral procession.

Our correspondent further said that while it was "almost impossible" to confirm a figure for those who had gone missing during Thursdsay's crackdown, one opposition politician put the number at 70.

Members of the opposition Al Wefaq party have withdrawn from the country's parliament. The party says MPs will not rejoin if the government continues to disallow protests.

Meanwhile, Bahraini state television showed pictures of a pro-government rally, attended by hundreds, taking place in Manama, despite the ban on public gatherings.

Gatherings banned

Just hours after Thursday's deadly police action, the military announced the ban, saying on state TV that it had "key parts" of Manama under its control.

Khalid Al Khalifa, Bahrain's foreign minister, justified the Pearl roundabout raid as necessary because the demonstrators were "polarising the country" and pushing it to the "brink of the sectarian abyss".

Speaking after meeting with his Gulf counterparts, he said the violence was “regrettable”.

He denied, however, that the military had used "any weapons at the people", insisting that security forces were only "try[ing] to evacuate the square".

Two people had died in police firing on protesters prior to Thursday's deadly police raid. Al Jazeera's correspondent said that hospitals had been full of injured people after police raid, with the injured including nurses and doctors who had rushed to attend to the wounded.

After several days of holding back, Bahrain's Sunni Arab rulers unleashed a heavy crackdown, trying to stamp out the first anti-government upheaval to reach the Arab states of the Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

During the assault at the Pearl Roundabout, police tore down the protesters' tents, beating men and women inside and blasting some with shotgun sprays of bird-shot.

The interior ministry ministry claims that protesters were carrying swords, knives and other bladed instruments.

The pre-dawn raid was a sign of how deeply the island's Sunni monarchy fears the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests, led by members of the country's Shia majority but also joined by growing numbers of discontented Sunnis.

Bahrain is a pillar of US military framework in the region: it hosts the US navy's Fifth Fleet, which the US sees as a critical counterbalance to Iran's military power.

Suspicion of Iran

Bahrain's rulers and their Sunni Arab allies depict any sign of unrest among their Shia Muslim populations as a move by neighbouring Shia-majority Iran to expand its clout in the region.

The army would take every measure necessary to preserve security, the interior ministry said.

Against this backdrop of continued unrest, Britain said on Thursday that it was reviewing decisions to export arms to Bahrain.

"In light of events we are today formally reviewing recent licencing decisions for exports to Bahrain," Alistair Burt, a junior foreign minister with responsibility for the Middle East, said.

He cautioned that Britain would "urgently revoke licences if we judge that they are no longer in line with the criteria" used for the export of weapons.

In a statement, Burt said a range of licences had been approved for Bahrain in the last nine months, including two for 250 tear gas cartridges for the Bahrain Defence Force and National Security Agency "for trial/evaluation purposes".

For her part, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called Bahrain's foreign minister to register Washington's "deep concern" and urge restraint.

Similarly, Human Rights Watch called on Bahraini authorities to order security forces to stop attacks on peaceful protesters and investigate the deaths.

The protesters' demands have two main objectives: force the Sunni monarchy to give up its control over high-level government posts and all critical decisions, and address deep grievances held by the country's Shias, who make up 70 per cent of Bahrain's 500,000 citizens.

But the community claims its faces systematic discrimination and poverty and is effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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