Manama: Armed patrols prowled neighbourhoods and tanks appeared in the streets for the first time on Thursday after riot police with tear gas and clubs drove protesters from a main square where they had demanded sweeping political change in this tiny kingdom. Medical officials said four people were killed.
Police cars with flashing blue lights encircled Pearl Square, the site of anti-government rallies since Monday. Barbed wire was set up on streets leading to the square, where police cleaned up flattened protest tents and trampled banners. The Interior Ministry declared the protest camp "illegal" and warned Bahrainis to stay off the streets.
The island nation was effectively shut down since workers in the capital could not pass checkpoints or were too scared to venture out. Banks and other key institutions did not open.
The protesters` demands have two main objectives: force the ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions, and address deep grievances held by the country`s majority Shi’ites who claim they face systematic discrimination and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.
Tiny Bahrain also is a pillar of Washington`s military framework in the region. It hosts the US Navy`s 5th Fleet, which is a critical counterbalance to Iran`s efforts to expand its clout in the region.
Any prolonged crisis opens the door for a potential flashpoint between Iran and its Arab rivals in the Gulf. Bahrain`s ruling Sunni dynasty is closely allied to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab regimes in the Gulf. But Shi’ite hard-liners in Iran have often expressed kinship and support for Bahrain`s Shi’ite majority, which accounts for 70 percent of the island`s 500,000 citizens.
Sporadic clashes between police and protesters continued in the morning, with demonstrators hurling rocks, then retreating. A group of young men broke up the pavement for more stones to throw.
A body covered in a white sheet lay in a pool of blood on the side of a road about 20 yards (meters) from the landmark square. Police cleared away the wrecked tents and the street was littered with broken glass, tear gas canisters and other debris.
Demonstrators began camping out on Tuesday on the square beneath the 300-foot (90-meter) monument featuring a giant pearl, making it the nerve centre of the first anti-government protests to reach the Arab Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The police assault came early Thursday with little warning. Mahmoud Mansouri, a protester, said police surrounded the camp and then quickly moved in.
"We yelled, `We are peaceful! Peaceful!` The women and children were attacked just like the rest of us," he said. "They moved in as soon as the media left us. They knew what they`re doing."
Dr Sadek Akikri, 44, said he was tending to sick protesters at a makeshift medical tent in the square when the police stormed in. He said he was tied up and severely beaten, then thrown on a bus with others.
"They were beating me so hard I could no longer see. There was so much blood running from my head," he said. "I was yelling, `I`m a doctor. I`m a doctor.` But they didn`t stop."
He said the police beating him spoke Urdu, the main language of Pakistan. A pillar of the protest demands is to end the Sunni regime`s practice of giving citizenship to other Sunnis from around the region to try to offset the demographic strength of Shi’ites. Many of the new Bahrainis are given security posts.
Akikri said he and others on the bus were left on a highway overpass, but the beatings didn`t stop. Eventually, the doctor said he fainted but could hear another police official say in Arabic: "Stop beating him. He`s dead. We should just leave him here."
Bahrain`s Parliament — minus opposition lawmakers who are staging a boycott — met in emergency session. One pro-government member, Jamila Salman, broke into tears.
As the crackdown began, demonstrators in the square described police swarming in through a cloud of eye-stinging tear gas.
"They attacked our tents, beating us with batons," said Jafar Jafar, 17. "The police were lined up at the bridge overhead. They were shooting tear gas from the bridge."
Many families were separated in the chaos.
Hussein Abbas, 22, was awakened by a missed call on his cell phone from his wife, presumably trying to warn him about reports that police were preparing to move in.
"Then all of a sudden the square was filled with tear gas clouds. Our women were screaming. ... What kind of ruler does this to his people? There were women and children with us!"
ABC News said its correspondent, Miguel Marquez, was caught in the crowd and beaten by men with billy clubs, although he was not badly injured.
Hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media, said four people were killed early Thursday. Wounded streamed by the dozens into Salmaniya medical centre, the main state-run hospital in Manama, with serious gaping wounds, broken bones and respiratory problems from the tear gas.