MANAMA (Reuters) - Opposition youths skirmished with police after 10,000 Bahrainis rallied peacefully for democracy on Friday, two days before a Formula One car race that puts the Gulf Arab kingdom in the global spotlight.
An authorized rally attended by men, women and children west of the capital Manama was orderly but as it broke up, just a few hundred yards (meters) away, dozens of young men skirmishes with security forces firing tear gas.
The youths, many wearing black and white masks, burned boxes, a rubbish bin and tires in the road. The tear gas sent the young men scattering.
Many in the Shi‘ite Muslim-majority state accuse the Sunni-led government of trying to use Sunday’s race to paper over human rights abuses and disguise political problems they say still plague the country, a close U.S. ally.
The opposition hopes the spotlight on the kingdom’s biggest sporting event will help their struggle gain wider attention.
Bahrain has grappled with unrest since pro-democracy demonstrations broke out in February 2011, inspired by Arab Spring revolts that swept the region.
The protests were crushed by Saudi-backed security forces, dozens of people were killed and authorities razed Pearl Square in central Manama, where mostly Shi‘ite demonstrators had camped out.
The race was cancelled in 2011 when the protests were crushed. Last year’s race went ahead against a backdrop of burning tires and riot police firing teargas at protesters throwing petrol bombs in Shi‘ite Muslim villages.
At Friday’s rally, many of the protesters held banners reading “I love Bahrain”. Some carried roses or national flags. Posters called for the release of activists from prison.
They chanted “We reject tyrannical rule” and “With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you Bahrain.” but prior to the skirmishes, the atmosphere was largely peaceful.
Anti-government protesters and security forces also clashed overnight, with the demonstrators setting tires ablaze on roads and police firing tear gas and stun grenades, the BBC reported.
Opposition activist Ala‘a Shehabi told Reuters she believed violence took place in about 10 to 15 Shi‘ite villages overnight but she could give no other details.
A 58-year-old government employee who gave his name as Abu Mohamed said he believed the overwhelming majority of Bahrainis did not accept the Grand Prix and that the race’s economic benefits only went to a select few.
“It’s just for a few people from the ruler’s family. The money doesn’t go for the government, only for the royal family. If it was for the people, we would accept it,” he said.
Ali, a 24-year-old engineer who did not want to give his full name for fear of endangering his job prospects, said Bahrainis resented economic imbalances, especially expatriates who were given houses and jobs by the government.
“If you go around the villages you see very bad conditioned houses, and the original people of Bahrain are living in this.”
But Abu Mohamed said the main complaint of Bahrainis was not economic. “We are asking for democracy,” he said.
The government denies opposition allegations that it discriminates against Shi‘ites, carries out arbitrary arrests or abuses detainees. It says it arrests suspects in accordance with the rule of law.
It says Shi‘ite Muslim regional power Iran is inciting the unrest, a charge Tehran denies.
As Friday’s protest rally took place, free practice for the race was going on at the Sakhir desert circuit about 30 km (19 miles) southwest of the capital Manama.
Justice Minister Khalid al-Khalifa said last week the event - which Bahrain pays an estimated $40 million a year to host - should not be politicized.
However, Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority said on Friday authorities were deporting three journalists working for a foreign news organization, saying they had broken the rules governing their activities in the country.
Britain’s ITV News said the journalists were on assignment for it and had visas approved by the Bahraini authorities.
The opposition demands the creation of a constitutional monarchy, which the government flatly rejects. It also blames security forces for excessive force in suppressing protests.
Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Angus MacSwan