MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahraini protesters attacked a police station with petrol bombs on Thursday and riot police responded with teargas and stun grenades after a funeral march for a man killed in clashes during the Gulf Arab state’s Formula One race last week.
Petrol bombs set the police station’s wall ablaze and the clashes spilled onto a main highway, holding up traffic for up to an hour, Reuters witnesses said.
The clashes, in the Manama neighborhood of al-Bilad al-Qadeem, took place after thousands of mourners visited the grave of Salah Abbas Habib, 36, who was found dead on Saturday after disappearing during fighting between protesters and police.
Bahrain, where the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family rules over a majority Shi’ite population, has been in turmoil since a pro-democracy uprising erupted last year after successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
Habib was buried by his family in Shakhura village on Monday, and friends said his body had extensive birdshot wounds inflicted during clashes with police on Friday.
The main opposition party Wefaq says Habib’s body showed signs of torture, including multiple fractures and birdshot pellets apparently fired at close range. The interior ministry has said it will establish what happened to Habib.
Wefaq says his death takes to 81 the number of people killed since the protests began. That figure includes 35 who died during the initial uprising and more than two months of martial law, among them five security personnel.
The government disputes the cause of death in many cases and says the protesters are hooligans who are trying to kill police. It says a homemade bomb wounded four policemen this week, and that seven policemen were wounded earlier this month.
The turmoil has continued with regular mass marches and almost daily clashes in Shi’ite areas throughout the island.
The protests escalated ahead of last week’s Formula One Grand Prix, drawing criticism of Bahrain from some governments, rights groups and media watchdogs who say police use excessive force and the government should find a political solution.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa defended the police on Wednesday, saying they had a right to defend themselves.
Protesters and opposition parties want to end the ruling family’s domination by giving parliament full powers to legislate and form governments. The government has offered little, accusing the opposition of being lackeys of Iran.
Analysts say Bahrain has been dragged into the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam, and Shi’ite power Iran. Riyadh has backed its Sunni rulers, Iranian media give prominent coverage to the opposition.
Concern for the life of a jailed opposition leader on hunger strike has sharpened the tension in a country which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and is seen by Washington as a bulwark against Iranian expansionism.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of 14 men jailed for leading last year’s uprising, has been fasting for 78 days. He is serving a life sentence for expressing support for Bahrain becoming a republic.
His wife and his lawyer both say military hospital authorities have prevented contact with Khawaja this week, though the interior minister said on Twitter on Wednesday evening that he was in “good health”.
Front Line Defenders, an Irish-based group defending rights activists, called on Bahrain in a statement to provide “proof of life” to confirm Khawaja is still alive.
“Front Line Defenders calls on the (interior) minister to allow family visits, restore daily phone calls and update his family on his medical condition. Since 1 pm Monday no verification of his status has been possible,” it said.
The next session in an appeal hearing for Khawaja and the 13 others is due on Monday.
Khawaja is respected by international rights groups as a rights defender but seen by some Bahrainis as a Shi’ite Islamist activist.
Criticism of Bahrain by Western allies like Britain and the United States has been muted for fear of alienating a trusted friend and its Saudi neighbor, which fears unrest could spread among Shi’ites in its Eastern Province oil-producing region.
Writing by Andrew Hammond in Dubai; Editing by Tim Pearce