MANAMA (Reuters) - Anti-government protesters clashed with Bahraini police in Manama on Thursday, a rare protest in the capital as majority Shi'ite Muslims try to sustain pressure for more reforms ahead of the February 14 anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising.
Bahrain, led by the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family, has been in turmoil since an Arab Spring protest movement that erupted last year followed by a government crackdown. Clashes have continued in districts populated by Shi'ites but have worsened in recent weeks as the anniversary approaches.
Police set up checkpoints on major roads surrounding the old district of Manama in an apparent attempt to stop people driving in to join an unlicensed protest that had been announced in advance.
Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab led around 500 people, mainly local residents, chanting "Down with (King) Hamad" through the narrow alleyways towards a main road, where riot police began firing tear gas.
Groups of police on foot chased youths through the neighborhood, with police firing tear gas, sound bombs and rubber bullets and youths throwing stones and some petrol bombs. On a stormy evening, the wind blew most of the gas away.
"You mercenaries, get out of the country, you dogs!" one old man shouted after a patrol that passed through the alleys. Shi'ites say the government uses foreign police hires, mainly from Pakistan, who they face in clashes.
A policeman justified the cat-and-mouse chase, a typical event in Shi'ite districts that has often led to casualties. "They threw rocks at us and many things," he said. The youths were masked and the police teams filmed people as they went.
A group of international legal experts commissioned by King Hamad to investigate the uprising and crackdown said in November that 35 people had died in the unrest up to June, when martial law was lifted.
But activists say the ongoing violence has taken the total to over 60, some from tear gas or from being hit by cars in pursuit of youths. The government disputes the causes of death.
A funeral was held earlier on Thursday for a man from the poor Shi'ite district of Ma'ameer who died a week after he was hospitalized as a result of tear gas inhalation while in his car, his family says.
The government says the protesters are hooligans who disrupt economic recovery and put police lives in danger. It says it has taken steps to address political and other grievances.
King Hamad announced last month extra parliamentary powers to scrutinize budgets and question ministers. But the reforms have not quelled anger over what Shi'ites consider political and economic marginalization of their community.
The government hopes to host the Formula One grand prix race in April. On Thursday evening, while the Manama protest was underway, it launched Bahrain's year as the capital of Arab culture - an Arab League title awarded to Arab cities each year - with a lavish music and dance spectacular attended by Arab luminaries such as Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.
Sunni-ruled Gulf states like Saudi Arabia are uneasy that political reforms in Bahrain would not only raise questions about a lack of democracy in their own countries, but may also empower the Shi'ite majority in Bahrain and other Gulf states.
That may embolden non-Arab Shi'ite giant Iran across the Gulf from Bahrain, an issue of particular concern to the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Manama.
Reporting by Andrew Hammond