In Bahrain, police move against protesters; state of emergency declared
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 7:51 AM
MANAMA, BAHRAIN - A swelling anti-government protest that had drawn thousands to the heart of this country's financial district was broken up Thursday in a predawn raid by police who used tear gas, clubs and rubber bullets to clear the crowd.
At least two people were killed, and protesters said others were critically injured. There was no official word on casualties from Bahrain's authorities.
Hours later, tanks rumbled into Manama as Apache helicopters flew overhead. Military vehicles and police blocked roads, and some areas were cordoned off with barbed wire. In what longtime observers said was turning into an unusually severe crackdown here, the Bahraini national security council met and declared a state of emergency.
The authorities declared the emergency "just to clear them, to force them to go back to their houses," a Bahraini government official said, referring to the protesters. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter.
The raid took place hours after protesters gathered here in Bahrain's capital to demand greater political freedoms and more jobs. Some had escalated their demands to include the ouster of Bahrain's prime minister, a member of the royal family who has served for nearly 40 years, and even an end to the al-Khalifa monarchy.
The crackdown followed one earlier this week that left two demonstrators dead and prompted an apology from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
"The Bahrain authorities have taken the tough option. It might also prove the foolish option," said Simon Henderson, a Persian Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Early Thursday, hundreds of police officers surrounded protesters gathered in a makeshift encampment in the Pearl Square roundabout - including women and children who were asleep in tents - before firing tear gas and ammunition to clear the area, witnesses said.
"The people were in the middle, attacked from both sides. The people tried to run away in the villages,'' Mohammed al-Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, who was in the square at the time, said in an interview.
As some officers chased fleeing protesters toward those villages, others cordoned off the traffic circle, even blocking those who live on the circle from leaving their buildings, witnesses said.
Al-Maskati said his group confirmed two killed but noted that many injured were still being brought to Manama's main hospital, a task complicated by the police cordon.
In one sense, the anti-government protests here are not new. Shiite Muslims are a majority of Bahrain's population, and they have rarely been shy about challenging the power and privilege vested in the Sunni minority under the al-Khalifa family.