Bahrain `regrets` opposition rebuff of talks

At least 100 people are missing since the crackdown on the protest began.

Updated: Mar 21, 2011, 10:10 AM IST

Manama: Bahrain`s government on Sunday regretted the "negative" response by opposition groups to an offer of dialogue aimed at ending a pro-democracy protest which police quelled this week.

The Shiite-led opposition, meanwhile, said it would not be coerced into talks, demanding the "correct" environment for negotiations aimed at solving thorny political issues in the Gulf state ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa family.

And in a sign of heightened tension between Bahrain and Iran over the latter`s criticism of the Arab state`s heavy-handed crackdown on the Shiites, Tehran said on Sunday it was expelling a Bahraini diplomat in reprisal for the expulsion of an Iranian diplomat from Manama.

Bahrain`s council of ministers "expressed regret over the negative position taken by some political groups and associations towards positive initiatives offered faithfully by the state to exit the crisis," in a statement carried by a state news agency.

It was referring to an offer last month by Crown Prince Sheikh Salman to the opposition to start an open dialogue over issues that instigated a month-long protest in central Manama.

The protest at Pearl Square was crushed by security forces on Wednesday, after the royal family called in Gulf troops, mostly from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, to help quash the protest that escalated last week into clashes that paralysed the capital.

The government said it regretted the "escalation in security (threat), and legal and constitutional violations, which forced the state to intervene forcefully to restore security, order and stability."

After a meeting, it also called on "political associations to assume their historical responsibility in protecting civil peace and national unity, and to reinforce security and stability in the kingdom."

The council is headed by Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, an uncle of King Hamad who has been in office in 1970 and who is loathed by the opposition which demanded his ouster as a precondition for dialogue.

"We are in favour of dialogue, but we will not sign surrender documents," said a defiant cleric Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the main Shiite opposition formation Al-Wefaq.

"We will not go to dialogue with a gun pointed to our heads... They can arrest us and they killed us, but we will not sign surrender papers," he told reporters at a news conference of an alliance of seven opposition groups.

Salman demanded an "end of killing, arrests and a probe into the events," adding that "citizens were being beaten and arrested at checkpoints manned by the military and militias."

He said there were at least 100 people missing since the crackdown on the protest.

"Every day we find out that there are new deaths... How could any reasonable person ask the opposition to go for dialogue under such circumstances?" he asked.

A Shiite man was said to have been found dead on Sunday with traces of torture on his body.

The influential Shiite leader insisted, however, that the opposition still adhered to a "peaceful approach" in voicing its demands.

The mainstream opposition led by Al-Wefaq, the largest Shiite formation, has demanded major reforms leading to changing the political system into a "real" constitutional monarchy under which the premier would be elected.

However, hardliners who appeared to champion the largely peaceful protest went farther, demanding the toppling of the regime and turning the kingdom into a republic.

Bahrain`s main trade union on Sunday said its call for a general strike in protest at the violence used against demonstrators remains in place, urging the authorities to "provide protection" for workers on the roads.

"A return to work is not possible as unofficial checkpoints continue to subject citizens and foreigners to beating, insults and unauthorised search," the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions said in a statement.

The civil service authority has meanwhile warned that employees not turning up fir work will face pay deductions, leading to their dismissal if they do not have a valid excuse.

Bureau Report