Riot police stormed the main square in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, early Thursday, driving out thousands of demonstrators who had set up camp demanding sweeping political change for the island kingdom. Witnesses say at least four people were killed.
Security forces firing tear gas, percussion grenades and rubber bullets moved into Pearl Square before dawn, attacking the mostly Shi’ite protesters – including women and children – who had occupied the area since Tuesday. Many injured people were rushed to local hospitals.
Armed patrols and tanks appeared in the streets early Thursday as police worked to clear away the tents left behind in the square. The area was nearly empty apart from a few people being questioned by police officers.
Security forces held back Wednesday as tens of thousands of Bahrainis gathered, dramatically expanding pro-democracy protests. By nightfall, a massive, jubilant crowd had swelled in Pearl Square following a day of peaceful protests. Earlier, hundreds had joined a procession to mourn one of two demonstrators killed since Monday.
Shi’ite opposition leaders issued assurances Wednesday they are not interested in transforming the monarchy into an Iran-style theocracy.
The Wall Street Journal reported that seven opposition groups, including the leading Shi’ite al-Wefaq party, announced they have formed a committee to help coordinate protest activity and unify the protesters’ demands. The Journal said the committee plans large demonstrations on Saturday.
Wefaq’s leader, Sheik Ali Salman, told a news conference Wednesday his organization “is not looking for a religious government like Iran’s,” but wants a civilian democracy that represents both Shi’ites and Sunnis.
The Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain since the 18th century, is Sunni Muslim and has long had tense relations with the country’s Shi’ite majority. The king recruits foreigners to serve as police rather than trust Shi’ite citizens to wear uniforms and carry weapons.
About half of the island kingdom’s 1.3 million people are Bahraini, while the rest are foreign workers. Shi’ites make up 70 percent of the population.
In 2001, voters overwhelmingly approved a national charter to lead the way toward democratic changes. But a year later, the king imposed a constitution by decree that Shi’ite leaders say has diluted the rights in the charter and blocked them from achieving a majority in the parliament.
Al-Wefaq leaders say the group’s 18 deputies will not return to the 40-member parliament until King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa agrees to transform the nation into a constitutional democracy with an elected government.
Many of the protesters in Pearl Square say they will remain until they achieve their goals. Some are openly calling for the dynasty’s ouster, while others demand the immediate resignation of longtime Bahraini Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. Demonstrators also want Bahrain’s ruling family to free political prisoners and create more opportunities for majority Shi’ites, who have long complained of discrimination.
Activists filled Pearl Square Wednesday after setting up a tent camp and spending a first night in the open. The protest site mirrors the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square by Egyptian activists who ousted their president last week.
Bahrain’s king made a rare televised address Tuesday, offering condolences for the deaths of the two Shi’ite protesters and promising an investigation into the incidents. He also vowed to push ahead with political reforms that he began with a 2001 referendum that restored a parliament the following year.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and also is a regional offshore banking center.