By RFE RL
(RFE/RL) — Dozens of armored vehicles were seen today on the streets of Bahrain’s capital, Manama, shortly after security forces cracked down on protests.
Four people were reported killed and nearly 150 injured when riot police cleared hundreds of protesters from the central Pearl Square before dawn, using tear gas, firing rubber bullets, and closing off the area.
The latest deaths bring to at least six the number of demonstrators killed this week in demonstrations organized in the wake of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The protesters, who had been camped out since February 15, are calling for wide-ranging political reforms in the country, whose population is 70 percent Shi’ite but is ruled by a Sunni Muslim monarchy.
Abed al-Jalil Khalil, head of the main Shi’ite opposition Wefaq party, told Reuters that the police crackdown was “real terrorism.”
“There is more than one way or option to avoid such confrontation and killing,” Khalil says. “Whoever took that decision was aiming to kill.”
Wefaq has boycotted parliament to protest the clampdown by Sunni security forces.
All Other Avenues ‘Exhausted’
In a statement from the official news agency BNA, Interior Ministry spokesman General Tarek al-Hassan said the security forces evacuated Pearl Square “after having exhausted all chance of dialogue.”
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has pledged an investigation into the earlier deaths and promised to push ahead with reforms that would include loosening state controls on the media and Internet.
Since independence from Britain in 1971, tensions between the Sunni elite and the Shi’as have frequently caused civil unrest, with the majority Shi’as complaining of being marginalized.
Ahead of the storming of Pearl Square, White House spokesman Jay Carney expressed concern at the violence in the Persian Gulf island, where the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet is based.
“Bahrain, like all the countries in the region, needs to respect the universal rights of its citizens — their right to protest, the right to have their grievances heard. And they should refrain from violence — on both sides,” Carney said. “We are obviously watching events in Bahrain and around the region very closely.”
The Bahrain protest was part of a wave of antigovernment unrest that has swept through North Africa and the Middle East in recent weeks, forcing the long-serving rulers of Tunisia and Egypt from power.
The antigovernment rallies are being fueled by discontent over unemployment, rising living costs, corruption, and autocratic leaderships.
‘Day Of Rage’
In the last week, protests have taken place in Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Jordan, Libya, and Yemen — where today antigovernment protesters and supporters clashed for a fifth straight day in the capital, Sanaa.
Reports said hundreds of armed government loyalists chased off a small group of protesters trying to launch a seventh day of rallies to demand President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation. At least five people were reported injured.
In Libya, online activists called on social networking sites for a “Day of Rage” today.
Public dissent is rare in Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi has been in power for more than 40 years.
In a first sign of defiance on February 15, witnesses and media reported that several hundred people clashed with police and Qaddafi supporters in the North African country’s second-largest city, Benghazi.
More than 30 people, including police officers, were reported injured in the unrest, which followed the detention of an outspoken government critic.
There were also reports of clashes in the northeastern city of Al-Baida overnight in which witnesses and Libyan nongovernmental organizations based abroad said up to four people were killed.
In a speech broadcast on February 16, Gaddafi made no mention of the unrest but said the “revolutionaries” would prevail and that “the puppets of the U.S.A., the puppets of Zionism” were falling.
Meanwhile, an unidentified Libyan official warned in a statement that the authorities “will not allow a group of people to move around at night and play with the security of Libya.”
The European Union has urged Tripoli to allow “free expression.”
More than 100 members of a banned Islamist militant group were freed from prison on February 16. It is not clear if the release of the inmates was connected to the Benghazi clashes.
written by Antoine Blua, with agency reports