MANAMA (Reuters) - Pro-democracy protesters burned tires and clashed with police in Bahrain on Saturday to demand the release of opposition leaders and rights activists, one of whom has been on a three-month hunger strike, residents said.
Hundreds of youths gathered in mainly Shi‘ite villages outside the Gulf state’s capital Manama, some masked and throwing petrol bombs towards rows of riot police, they said.
Many chanted “The people want the fall of the regime!” and “Down, down Hamad!”, referring to the ruler, King Hamad. Police fired teargas and stun grenades to disperse the protesters.
In Washington, the U.S. State Department said on Friday the United States would resume some military sales to Bahrain, a key Gulf ally facing Iran, despite human rights concerns linked to the popular protests against the island kingdom’s rulers.
Bahrain, which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim monarchy and hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since activists mainly from the majority Shi‘ite community began protests in February 2011, inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The authorities tried to crush the movement with martial law and by bringing in Saudi troops, accusing activists of cooperating with Shi‘ite Iran to change the system of government. The opposition and Iran reject the accusation.
More than a year later, unrest persists with weekly mass rallies by opposition parties and clashes between youth activists and riot police.
On Saturday, a police bomb squad removed an object that looked like a homemade explosive device in an area west of Manama, but police later told reporters it was fake.
Last Saturday, an improvised bomb wounded four policemen as police clashed again with protesters demanding the release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a jailed rights activist on hunger strike, and other jailed opposition figures.
Last week, police also arrested Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights when he returned from Beirut.
Prosecutors questioned him about his messages on the social media platform Twitter. He also faces previous charges of organizing a protest in Manama in March.
Rajab shot to prominence last year when he became a trenchant campaigner against the crackdown. With more than 140,000 followers on Twitter, he is one of the leading online activists in the Arab world.
A tweet on his account on Saturday read: “Remember that your goal is not in dealing with riot police on the streets, it’s the regime. Focus on the real target, stay peaceful.”
Reporting by Hamad Mohammed; Writing by Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Sophie Hares