Protesters return to square in Bahrain capital

The cheering protesters carrying Bahraini flags and flowers marched to the Pearl square.

Updated: Feb 19, 2011, 18:57 PM IST

Manama: Thousands of celebrating protesters have moved back into a square that was the symbolic heart of their demonstration after Bahrain`s leaders ordered the military to withdraw tanks and other armored vehicles that had secured it earlier this week.

The military vehicles moved away Saturday from Pearl Square, the symbolic center of the uprising against the Sunni monarchy in the predominantly Shiite nation, and riot police also withdrew.

The cheering protesters carrying Bahraini flags, flowers and signs that said "Peaceful, peaceful" marched to the square. They chanted, "We are victorious."

Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, made a brief address on state TV and appealed for calm and political dialogue.

Bahrain ordered its military off the streets on Saturday, responding to a key demand by the opposition for starting a dialogue in the political crisis a day after security forces opened fire on anti-government protesters.

Although it was not clear how protest leaders would respond to the move, some jubilant Bahrainis honked car horns, waved flags and flashed v-for-victory signs as the armored vehicles began moving away from Pearl Square, the centerpiece of their demonstration.

A news agency photographer saw a contingent of riot police fired tear gas at people celebrating the army withdrawal from the square and detain at least 10 people.

It was not immediately clear if the tanks and other armored vehicles were headed all the way back to military bases, or just pulling back from the square.

According to a government statement, the withdrawal order came from Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, deputy supreme commander of the armed forces and the member of the royal family who has been designated to open a dialogue with protest leaders.

The statement said he had ordered "the withdrawal of all military from the streets of Bahrain with immediate effect."

"The Bahrain police force will continue to oversee law and order," the statement said.

Thousands of marchers came under fire Friday as they tried to head toward the square. More than 50 were injured in the second consecutive day of clashes. Protesters took over Pearl Square earlier in the week, but they were driven out in a deadly assault Thursday.

Protesters had said they were determined to take back the square on Saturday.

US President Barack Obama discussed the situation with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, asking him to hold those responsible for the violence accountable. He said in a statement that Bahrain must respect the "universal rights" of its people and embrace "meaningful reform."

Protesters who tried to march to the square Friday described a chaotic scene of tear gas clouds, bullets coming from many directions and people slipping in pools of blood as they sought cover. Some claimed the gunfire came from either helicopters or sniper nests.

The clash came hours after funeral mourners and worshippers at Friday prayers called for the toppling of the Western-allied monarchy in the tiny island nation that is home to the US.

Navy`s 5th Fleet, the centerpiece of the Pentagon`s efforts to confront Iranian military influence.

Some members of Bahrain`s Sunni ruling system worry that Shiite powerhouse Iran could use Bahrain`s majority Shiites as a further foothold in the region.

The cries against the king and his inner circle — at a main Shiite mosque and at burials for those killed when security forces attacked a protest camp in Pearl Square — reflect a sharp escalation of the political uprising, which began with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy`s power and address claims of discrimination against the Shiite majority.

The mood, however, has turned toward defiance of the entire ruling system after the crackdown, which put the nation under emergency-style footing with military forces in key areas and checkpoints on main roads.

Bureau Report