Bahraini protesters clashed with police Saturday, a day ahead of a Formula One race that the island kingdom’s opposition hopes will draw attention to its campaign for democracy.

Young men blocked roads, burned tires and threw rocks at security forces who fired tear gas in several villages around the capital, Manama, on Saturday afternoon and evening after similar clashes on Friday, human rights activists and witnesses said.

Such skirmishes have occurred almost nightly in Bahrain for the past two years, and the opposition has called for more protests in the run-up to the Grand Prix, which many in the Shiite-majority country accuse the Sunni-led government of using to disguise political dysfunction and human rights abuses.

The government says it respects human rights and that any reports of wrongdoing by its security forces are investigated.

Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa disputed the characterization of the Grand Prix as a spectacle used by the government to disguise human rights abuses.

“We’ve never used this race to say that everything’s fine. We recognize there are issues in the country, but they are to be solved through a political process, which is well underway,” he told reporters at the Sakhir desert circuit in rare comments to the news media.

He said the government supported peaceful protesters but did not want to encourage “extreme” elements within the opposition that used violence to further their aims.

Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda, of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said he believed protests and clashes broke out in nearly 20 villages Saturday. In about 10, protesters scuffled with security forces, who fired tear gas and birdshot to disperse them, he said.

Police also repulsed protesters in four villages trying to march toward the site of the Pearl Roundabout, where demonstrators had gathered during the uprising in 2011 but has since been destroyed, he added.

Muhafda estimated about eight protesters were injured Friday, one with birdshot and another with a tear gas canister.

The tiny nation, only about a quarter the size of Luxembourg, has been hit by unrest since pro-democracy protests started in February 2011. The Formula One race was canceled that year amid the violence.

A government-commissioned report said 35 people died during the uprising. The opposition puts the death toll much higher.

A riot policeman approaches a group of Bahraini women, unseen, protesting against the government during clashes in Daih, Bahrain, on Saturday, April 20, 2013. The wall behind him is covered with layers of anti-government graffiti and old posters for past resistance activities. (Hasan Jamali/Associated Press)

Bahrain pays an estimated $40 million a year to host the Formula One race, which Justice Minister Khalid bin Ali al-Khalifa said last week should not be “politicized.”

Bahrain’s information minister, Samira Rajab, said that the recent clashes were “the normal sort” and that opposition reports about them sought to inflate their significance.

“They are trying to exaggerate for the media before the Formula One race. They are working very hard to show a bad image of Bahrain,” she said.

Throughout the unrest, the United States has voiced support for its ally, which hosts its navy’s 5th Fleet and which it sees as a key ally in the regional struggle between Sunni power Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran.

— Reuters