Protesters took to the tense streets of Bahrain on Saturday to mark the third anniversary of an Arab Spring-inspired uprising as a policeman died of wounds suffered a day earlier.
Draped in Bahraini flags and wearing patches reading “Ready to die for Bahrain”, thousands of supporters of the main Shiite opposition bloc Al-Wefaq rallied peacefully on Budaya highway, four kilometres (2.5 miles) west of Manama, witnesses said.
Helicopters hovered overhead and no clashes were reported despite a massive security force deployment along roads leading to the highway that links several Shiite villages with Manama.
The Sunni-ruled country’s majority population is Shiite.
“The revolt will continue,” demonstrators chanted.
“We will only kneel to Allah” and “Step down Khalifa,” they called, referring to the king’s uncle Prince Khalifa, who has been premier since independence from Britain in 1971.
The rally was joined by prominent Shiite cleric Issa Qassem and leading members of Al-Wefaq including its head Ali Salman.
Al-Wefaq has boycotted parliament since the 2011 uprising.
In a statement, it reiterated demands in a roadmap unveiled on February 8 for restarting national dialogue talks suspended last month.
These include freeing all prisoners arrested over the uprising since 2011, free elections and a parliament with full legislative powers.
Authorities tolerate Al-Wefaq’s protests which are usually organised and peaceful, unlike those of youth activists who erect impromptu roadblocks and clash with police.
– Policemen dies of wounds –
The interior ministry said a policeman died from wounds sustained in an overnight “terrorist explosion” in the Shiite village of Dair, and five others were wounded over the past two days, two of them “seriously”.
It was the second reported blast during three days of protests commemorating the month-long Arab Spring-inspired uprising which began on February 14, 2011, and which troops suppressed a month later.
Earlier, the ministry reported another explosion in the similarly named village of Daih, which slightly damaged a bus transporting police, pictures posted on Twitter showed.
The blasts struck as protesters rallied in several areas of the small but strategic archipelago, which lies just across the Gulf from Iran and is home to the US Fifth Fleet.
Shiite villages have been at the forefront of the campaign among the majority community for the ruling Khalifa family to surrender its grip on all key cabinet posts in favour of an elected government.
Witnesses said several people were wounded as police fired tear gas and birdshot to disperse protesters on Friday.
Demonstrators responded by hurling petrol bombs, the witnesses added.
“Some villages saw rioting, vandalism and the targeting of policemen. This required police to respond to these criminal acts through legal means,” the interior ministry said.
It said 55 people were arrested over the past two days.
Last August, King Hamad ordered stiffer penalties for “terrorism” offences, including a minimum 10-year jail term for attempted bombing convictions.
Bombings that result in casualties are punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty.
– Opposition condemns bombings –
Six opposition groups, led by Al-Wefaq, condemned attacks on police “regardless of their perpetrators” and called for “a neutral commission of inquiry to investigate the reports of bombings”.
They also condemned “excessive violence by security forces that left many people wounded over the past two days”, and insisted on their “commitment to peaceful means” in their campaign for a consitutional monarchy.
International rights groups have condemned Bahrain’s crackdown on demonstrations.
The International Federation for Human Rights says at least 89 people have been killed since the uprising broke out three years ago.
In an anniversary speech on Friday, King Hamad expressed “commitment to complete reform in accordance with our circumstances, national interests, identity and values”.
Two rounds of national reconciliation talks have failed to make any headway.
US State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf has urged all parties to concentrate on “resuming a dialogue in Bahrain” and avoid violence.