MANAMA More than 120 protesters have been wounded in clashes with police in Bahrain this week, activists said Wednesday, and a top opposition figure said the government had put out feelers about talks to resolve the Gulf state's year-long crisis.
Activists using the name "February 14 Youth Coalition" called for more demonstrations a day after protests to mark the first anniversary of a violently suppressed pro-democracy uprising with Sunni-Shi'ite sectarian overtones.
There were clashes in Musalla near Manama and the flashpoint town of Sitra, and police were arresting people in house to house raids in Sanabis, a Shi'ite village on the edge of the capital, and Budaiya, a district outside Manama.
"There were over 100 cases Tuesday and 37 of them are bad, with head injuries and fractures," said a medic who works with researchers of an international organization and asked not to be identified. "On Monday we had 20 people (wounded) in villages around the country."
The medic said some casualties had been hit by birdshot, which Bahraini police deny using.
Most of the wounded are treated in village homes or private health clinics because protesters from the Shi'ite majority fear they will be arrested if they go to hospitals run by the government, which is appointed by the Sunni monarchy.
The protests began as a spontaneous movement embracing both Shi'ites and Sunnis, cutting across religious and class divides with demands for broad political, social and economic reform.
But they descended into sectarian violence as backroom talks on democratic reforms went nowhere, and hardliners in government and opposition seized the initiative.
Government forces backed by Saudi troops crushed last year's month-long revolt. By June, when a state of emergency was lifted, 35 people including security personnel had been killed.
The island tourism and banking hub, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and is aligned with the United States and oil giant Saudi Arabia in their disputes with Iran over its nuclear program, has been in turmoil ever since.
Shi'ites clash regularly with riot police, while the opposition and government accused each other of rejecting dialogue.
However, Abduljalil Khalil, who heads the parliamentary caucus of the Shi'ite Wefaq party, the largest opposition faction, said three senior Wefaq figures met two weeks ago with Royal Court Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed, a powerful figure in the ruling Al-Khalifa family, at the government's request.
Khalil said they presented the key demand of the opposition, outlined in a statement in October known as the Manama Document, for a referendum on moving toward full parliamentary democracy.
Such a move to curb the extensive powers of the ruling dynasty would be a first in the Gulf.
"He asked if we are ready for dialogue, and we said 'yes', but a serious and constructive one," Khalil said.
"We presented our views on how to get out of this mess. He said they'll get back to us ... Now we are at the first anniversary of February 14, and security action has not worked. They realize they need to have a political solution."
Asked if the opposition, which includes Shi'ite Islamists as well as Sunni and Shi'ite secularists, would agree to parties close to the government taking part, Khalil said they agreed that the government should hold separate discussions with them.
Highlighting opposition divisions, some activists criticized Wefaq for talking to a man they view as the architect of a policy of boosting Sunni population numbers by settling Pakistanis and some Arabs, a charge the government denies.
Nabeel Rajab, a rights figure who has led some street protests, called the minister the "engineer of ethnic cleansing." "This destroys any process of dialogue before it starts and shows lack of seriousness."
"How can we trust our opposition if they meet with such people? They sit with them while telling us something else," another activist, Sayed, told Reuters. "This is why the February 14 Coalition has become so popular."
CALL FOR RESTRAINT
Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman, who confirmed the contacts at a news conference, called on protesting youths this week to avoid being dragged into violent confrontations with police.
A protester called Ahmed, 20, said he had been struck by birdshot Tuesday during clashes with police in one of several Shi'ite districts that ring Pearl Roundabout, the hub of last year's unrest, now home to a National Guard camp and sealed off with barbed wire.
"I threw a rock and then one of them (police) stood and shot straight at me. One of the pellets just missed my head," he said, sitting on a mattress on the ground in visible pain.
A male nurse who helps treat activists said he had removed all but one of the pellets, pinching the skin around one wound to demonstrate that the projectile was still inside.
An Interior Ministry statement said Tuesday that rioters had been responsible for chaos and vandalism in several villages, but gave no information on how many had been wounded or detained.
Spokesman Ahmed Almannai said that those who believed they had been hit by birdshot should approach the authorities to verify the nature of their injuries.
After international pressure, a commission of foreign legal experts investigated last year's unrest and revealed systematic torture and deaths in police custody during that period.
Violence has intensified since the commission's report in November and the overall death toll is now around 66.
Six U.S. activists who came to observe how police handled Tuesday's anniversary protests were detained and deported.
A number of senior U.S. and British officials have been in Manama in the past week, including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, who called for more effort to heal Bahrain's rifts.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)