DUBAI Bahrain's crown prince has ordered police to exercise restraint in dealing with protesters and to avoid sectarian discrimination, as opposition activists accuse the Gulf Arab state of cracking down on pro-democracy protests.
The opposition party Wefaq praised the crown prince's comments.
Bahrain crushed an uprising led by majority Shi'ites last year after successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, but unrest has continued with marches and rallies that sometimes result in clashes between police and Shi'ite youths.
Since June the government - pressed by Washington to resolve the political dispute - has banned a number of marches by leading opposition party Wefaq, saying they block traffic and lead to violence.
But the opposition says it is an attempt by the Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family to crush all forms of street protest and accuses police of stepping up the use of shotgun pellet and raids on houses to stop all dissent.
"The king's instructions are clear and decisive, and today I direct them to you again as orders to be implemented, and these are to respect the constitution and the law and (ensure) they are not violated in any form," Crown Prince Salman said in comments carried by state news agency BNA on Tuesday.
"Force should not be used unless all alternative methods to the security approach are exhausted, and there should be no discrimination in dealing with all citizens of all affiliation and sect," he said in comments at a reception with Interior Ministry officials on Sunday, praising the minister for adopting reform initiatives.
A rights investigation led by a team of international legal experts uncovered widespread abuse during last year's crackdown in a report published in November, prompting government promises to institute a range of reforms.
The Wefaq opposition party welcomed the crown prince's comments.
"It's a step in the right direction but didn't reach the level of admission and apology," said Wefaq official Matar Matar. "We encourage the crown prince to continue using positive language but the real challenge is change on the ground."
The Interior Ministry said last week it had ordered an investigation into allegations of abuse by police officers.
Thirty-five people died during the uprising and over two months of martial law last year, but the opposition says that figure has risen to over 80. The government rejects attribution of many of those deaths to the political conflict.
Activists say five people, all Shi'ites, died in suspicious circumstances this year.
Bahrain has been caught up in regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Manama is host to the U.S. navy's Fifth Fleet, which has a key role in ensuring free flow of oil in the Gulf, while Tehran has threatened to stop oil shipping if it's standoff with the United States over its nuclear energy program deteriorates.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Sami Aboudi)