Bahrain arrests opposition leaders as crackdown intensifies

Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 5:47 PM

MANAMA, BAHRAIN - A day after security forces assaulted protesters in a central square in defiance of U.S. calls for dialogue, authorities arrested at least six opposition leaders Thursday and accused them of inciting murder and destruction of property.

Opposition groups said the six were arrested as part of an apparently widening crackdown on protests by members of Bahrain's Shiite majority, who harbor mounting grievances against the tiny Persian Gulf state's Sunni monarchy.

In a statement read on Bahrain state television, the government did not identify the detainees or say how many were taken into custody. But opposition sources said six were detained, including one man who had been laying the groundwork for negotiations with the government over the political crisis that has convulsed this country for more than a month.

The government said those arrested were "leaders of the civil strife" who had "communicated with foreign countries," Reuters news agency reported. The government charged that the men "incited killing of citizens and destruction of public and private property."

The sweep came a day after security forces wiped out an opposition tent city in Pearl Square in the heart of the capital and declared a 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew. The government said Thursday it would shorten the curfew by four hours in parts of the capital, starting it at 8 p.m.

Amid the crackdown, at least two small government hospitals remained closed Thursday despite a need for medical care.

The gates to Naim Hospital were chained shut Thursday morning, and Jidhafs Maternity Hospital was eerily empty, with no doctors, few office workers and dozens of empty beds in the main entrance halls.

Workers said the Ministry of Health ordered them closed Wednesday afternoon and that most patients went to private homes, transported by car.

At the private International Hospital of Bahrain, workers showed a shattered window that they said had been shot out Wednesday by police.

After the assault, trails of acrid black smoke floated over Manama as dumpsters and tires were set alight across the city.

Bahrain launched the crackdown despite U.S. insistence that dialogue, not violence, was the only way to resolve the protests, and it drew an unusually sharp rebuke from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was visiting the Middle East.

"They are on the wrong track," she told reporters in Cairo. "There is no security answer to this," she added, referring to the protesters' demands, "and the sooner they get back to the negotiating table and start trying to answer the legitimate needs of the people, the sooner there can be a resolution."

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