Security forces clashed with Shiite protesters who tried to march towards the Bahraini capital’s symbolic Pearl Square on Friday to mark the third anniversary of an Arab Spring-inspired uprising, witnesses said.
Protesters, who gathered in several Shiite villages to walk towards Pearl Square, where demonstrators camped out for a month in early 2011 before being violently dispersed by troops, were met with tear gas and bird shot, the witnesses said.
Several demonstrators were wounded as forces beefed up security around the Manama square and dispersed protesters emerging from nearby villages, the sources said.
The interior ministry said a police bus was struck in a bomb attack in the Shiite village of Daih, without reporting casualties.
“Terrorist explosion in Daih damaged a bus transporting police personnel,” it announced in an English-language statement on Twitter.
Witnesses said a loud explosion was heard in Daih and police cordoned off the area. However, pictures posted by the ministry on Twitter showed the bus slightly damaged on its sides.
Shiite villages have been at the forefront of the campaign among the Gulf state’s Shiite majority for a constitutional monarchy in the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom.
The Pearl Square roundabout and its central monument, which were a symbol of the 2011 uprising, were later razed and the site remains heavily restricted.
The influential February 14 youth coalition had called for the march to Pearl Square.
Bahrain announced in June that it had arrested leading members of the cyber-group, accusing it of links to Shiite Iran.
Saudi-led Gulf troops were deployed in Bahrain on the eve of the March 2011 crackdown, manning key positions while the tiny kingdom’s own security forces dispersed the protesters.
Earlier on Friday, protesters took to the streets in parts of the capital and in several villages.
“Down with Hamad,” protesters, some wrapped in white shrouds and others covering their faces, chanted, referring to the king.
“We will never surrender,” they shouted as police helicopters hovered overhead and police forces manned checkpoints outside Shiite villages, witnesses said.
Earlier this month, Bahrain toughened jail sentences for offending King Hamad, announcing that such an offence will carry a minimum one-year and a maximum seven-year term, as well as a fine of up to $26,000 (19,260 euros).
The Shiite opposition called for three days of protests to mark the anniversary as it seeks to give new momentum to its campaign for the ruling Khalifa family to surrender its grip on all key cabinet posts in favour of an elected government.
– King Hamad ‘committed’ to reforms –
The main Shiite opposition party Al-Wefaq, which has boycotted parliament since the uprising, said several areas had observed a complete shutdown Thursday following its call for a strike on the last day of the working week in Bahrain — ahead of a mass rally the bloc is planning for Saturday.
The interior ministry insisted that “business largely progressed as normal throughout the day” on Thursday.
“In general, citizens went about their daily business and work was normal in government and private organisations,” it said in a statement.
But it did confirm “some cases of rioting and vandalism in villages where groups blocked roads with bricks, iron spikes, debris and oil”.
It said 29 people were arrested.
Amnesty International on Thursday condemned Bahrain’s “relentless repression” of dissent and said it feared a violent crackdown on the anniversary demonstrations.
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) on Thursday urged Bahrain “to take immediate measures to restore the rule of law, to put an end to ongoing human rights violations.”
The FIDH says at least 89 people have been killed since the uprising broke out three years ago.
In a speech published on the referendum anniversary by the official BNA news agency, King Hamad affirmed the kingdom’s “commitment to complete reform in accordance with our circumstances, national interests, identity and values”.
Two rounds of national reconciliation talks between the opposition and the government failed to make any headway on a settlement in the strategic archipelago just across the Gulf from Iran.
Bahrain is the home base of the US Fifth Fleet.
Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the US State Department urged the parties to concentrate on “resuming a dialogue in Bahrain.”
“So we would encourage both sides to refrain from violence and show restraint and try to move the dialogue forward,” she added.