MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahraini police used water cannon and tear gas to break up a march chanting anti-government slogans after a funeral Monday, while protesters were arrested for approaching a roundabout at the center of an uprising last year.
Bahrain, a U.S. ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since protests erupted on February 14 last year, inspired by demonstrations sweeping the Arab world.
The country has a Shi‘ite Muslim majority, but is ruled by a Sunni ruling family. The government imposed martial law last year and crushed demonstrations after inviting troops from other Gulf states, led by Sunni power Saudi Arabia, to help restore order.
The anniversary of last year’s protests has seen an increase in demonstrations, mainly by Shi‘ites who say they seek more democracy. The past week has seen police use water cannon to disperse protests for the first time in 11 months.
Monday’s clash took place in Jidhafs, an area just outside the capital Manama, after the funeral of Hussein al-Baqali, 19, whose family says he died this week from burns sustained last month during a tire-burning at anti-government protests.
His family says he was unable to go to state hospitals for fear of arrest. The Interior Ministry said he set himself alight with intent to commit suicide.
“After the burial of Hussain al-Baqali in Jidhafs, groups of vandals rioted. Police legally dispersed them,” the Interior Ministry said in its Twitter feed.
Police moved in on a group of over 500 people who marched down to a traffic junction inside the town, using two water cannon lorries backed up by helicopters and dozens of riot police in armored vehicles and on foot firing tear gas.
The ministry also said “vandals” were later arrested for trying to block traffic on the highway near the former Pearl Roundabout, a traffic junction occupied by anti-government protesters for a month last year until the movement was crushed.
The junction’s pearl monument, once a national landmark, was razed after the protests last year. Opposition figures have said they wanted to mark the anniversary of the protests by re-occupying the area. There have been clashes in nearby Shi‘ite villages all week.
Said Yousif Almuhafda, an opposition activist, said different groups totaling around 30 people had tried Monday to approach the roundabout, which is under heavy guard. Some were arrested after tear gas was fired.
He said that earlier Zainab Al-Khawaja, a prominent activist whose father is one of 14 opposition leaders in jail, had been released following her arrest when she approached the roundabout with a group of people last week.
Police say protesters are not permitted to block highways and point to permits granted to opposition parties for marches and rallies in areas that will not disrupt traffic. The opposition says it is the closure of the roundabout that is holding up traffic.
Shi‘ites, who say they face political and economic marginalization, have dominated the protests seeking reforms to allow parliament to form governments and reduce the powers of the ruling family. The government has begun contact with opposition parties on a possible dialogue to end the crisis.
Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Peter Graff