Bahrain protests: Police break up Pearl Square crowd

Security forces in Bahrain have dispersed thousands of anti-government protesters in Pearl Square in the centre of capital, Manama.Hundreds of riot police using tear gas and batons moved into the square before dawn on Thursday.At least two people were killed in the police operation, the opposition says.The protesters are calling for wide-ranging political reforms and had been camped out since Tuesday.Clashes earlier in the week left two dead and dozens injured in the country.Ibrahim Sherif, of the secular Waad party, told the BBC that the police had acted without any warning at about 0300 (0000 GMT).”Throughout the day there were rumours that we would have another 24 hours, but the attack has come without warning.”You have hundreds of women and children already camping there. People are sleeping in the tents […] there is a dense fog of tear gas, these people could be trapped there and inhaling this tear gas,” he said.He said that he had seen at least 100 riot police on one side of the square and hundreds of people running away from the square down the side roads.

“We have two confirmed dead – one 65-year-old and another younger person, a third is in critical condition,” he said, adding that ambulances with injured people were arriving almost every minute at Manama’s main hospital.Some children, he said, had become separated from their parents as police stormed the square.Nick Frei, a Swiss businessman who lives in a flat above Pearl Square, told the BBC he woke to hear “raised voices and shots being fired – not the shots of bullets but the dull thud of tear gas canisters… dozens were being shot, saturating the square with gas. Even 34 storeys up I could smell the gas.”Within 20 or 30 minutes the police had moved in and the show was over. They had gained control of the square and most of the protesters had gone.”The US has expressed concern at the violence and called for restraint. Bahrain is a key US ally, hosting the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

“Bahrain, like all the countries in the region, needs to respect the universal rights of its citizens, their right to protest, their right to have their grievances heard,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Wednesday.”They should refrain from violence on both sides. We are obviously watching events from Bahrain and around the region very closely.”The disturbances in Bahrain – where the Shia Muslim majority has been ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family since the 18th Century – are part of a wave of anti-government unrest that has swept the Middle East.In a rare TV appearance on Tuesday, Bahrain’s king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, expressed regret about the deaths of protesters and said he would continue reforms begun in 2002 when the emirate became a constitutional monarchy.On Wednesday more than 1,000 people attend the funeral in Manama of a man who was killed on Tuesday during clashes with police at the funeral of another protester. Mourners chanted slogans calling for the removal of the government.Since independence from the UK in 1971, tensions between the Sunni elite and the less affluent Shia have frequently caused civil unrest. Shia groups say they are marginalised, subject to unfair laws, and repressed.

The conflict lessened in 1999 when Sheikh Hamad became emir. He freed political prisoners, allowed exiles to return and abolished a law permitting the government to detain individuals without trial for three years.He also began a cautious process of democratic reform. In 2001, voters approved a National Action Charter that would transform Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy. The next year, Sheikh Hamad proclaimed himself king and decreed that a National Assembly be formed.There was also greater protection of democracy and human rights. Although political parties were banned, “political societies” could operate.Landmark elections were held in 2002, but the opposition boycotted them because the appointed upper chamber of parliament, the Shura Council, was given equal powers to the elected lower chamber, the Council of Representatives – BBC