Bahrain's king seeks dialogue after another crackdown on protesters

Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 19, 2011

MANAMA, BAHRAIN - The widened unrest in the Middle East took a more violent turn Friday as U.S.-allied governments in Yemen and Bahrain opened fire on their citizens, prompting Britain and France to announce a halt in arms sales.

The use of live ammunition against pro-democracy demonstrators also triggered sharp criticism from President Obama, who called on authorities in Yemen, Bahrain and Libya to show restraint and "respect the rights of their people." Obama later spoke to the Bahraini king Friday night and urged that "those responsible for the violence" be held accountable.

Clashes erupted across the region Friday, from Jordan to Djibouti. An eighth straight day of violence in Yemen claimed at least one life in the southern city of Aden, where police fired gunshots to break up a crowd. In Libya, the death toll was reported to be in the dozens after four days of clashes in the coastal city of Benghazi, where security forces have also fired on protesters.

But the response from security forces was most heavy-handed in tiny Bahrain, home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, where soldiers used armored personnel carriers and machine guns to fire on protesters, wounding dozens, at least four of them critically.

Bahrain's king tried to restore calm by appointing his son, the crown prince, to lead a dialogue with anti-government demonstrators, most of them Shiite Muslims, who are demanding greater representation and other democratic reforms in a country where most power is wielded by the Sunni minority.

Britain responded to the violence by revoking licenses that have allowed the Bahraini kingdom to buy tear-gas canisters, crowd-control ammunition and other equipment. France suspended exports of security equipment to the country.

Obama, meanwhile, called King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to discuss the unrest and the government's response.

In a statement, the White House said Obama "reiterated his condemnation of the violence used against peaceful protesters, and strongly urged the government of Bahrain to show restraint, and to hold those responsible for the violence accountable."

"As a long-standing partner of Bahrain, the President said that the United States believes that the stability of Bahrain depends upon respect for the universal rights of the people of Bahrain, and a process of meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis," the statement said.

The United States last year provided Bahrain with about $21 million in military assistance, a substantial amount given the country's relatively small size. Of that total, about $1 million was designated for counterterrorism aid, much of it for the police and military forces that are suppressing the protests in the country's capital.

Administration officials have discussed the possible suspension of military licensing to Bahrain, according to one U.S. official. As of late Friday, however, a senior official at U.S. Central Command said it had not received notification of a suspension.

There were conflicting accounts of the clashes in Bahrain, with some witnesses saying that the military fired from helicopters or sniper's nests as well as from armored personnel carriers equipped with machine guns. The riot police then fired tear gas, the witnesses said, sending victims rushing to the city's public hospital, which was overwhelmed by the wounded and has become a new staging ground for anti-government protests.

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