MANAMA, Feb 17 - Troops in armored vehicles took control of Manama on Thursday after police attacked anti-government protesters, killing three people and wounding 231 in Bahrain’s worst violence in decades.
After riot police had cleared protesters from Pearl square before dawn, soldiers in at least 40 trucks and armored vehicles took control of the road junction demonstrators had tried to turn into a protest base like Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The crackdown by the Bahraini authorities appeared designed to snuff out the protests before they could gather momentum, unlike the sustained unrest that unseated Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
The main Shi‘ite bloc Wefaq, which holds 17 of parliament’s 40 seats, planned to quit the assembly in protest. “We feel there was a decision to hurt people,” MP Ibrahim Mattar said.
Abdul Jalil Khalil, who heads Wefaq’s bloc in parliament, said his group and six others had demanded that the government resign and make way for a new national unity government.
“This is an atrocity,” he said of the bloodshed. “Whoever took the decision to attack the protest was aiming to kill.”
Mattar told Reuters about 60 people were missing, hours after the police raid.“Are they in prison or did they escape and are now hiding in houses? We don’t know,” he said, adding that his figure was based on calls received from worried relatives.
Thousands of overwhelmingly Shi‘ite protesters, emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to Bahrain’s streets three days ago demanding more say in the Gulf Arab kingdom where a Sunni Muslim family rules over a majority Shi‘ite population.
The protesters want the Sunni ruling family to relinquish its control over top government posts and address grievances held by the country’s majority Shi‘ites who complain of economic hardships, lack of political freedoms and discrimination in jobs in public service and the military in favor of Sunnis.
Health Minister Faisal bin Yaqoob al-Hamer said three people had been killed and 231 hurt in the police operation. Most had left hospital, but 36 were still receiving treatment, including one in intensive care. “It is most unfortunate,” he told Reuters at the bedside of a doctor hurt during the clash.
Hamer said medical staff had been mobilized and all health centers placed on alert to receive casualties.
A statement from Bahrain’s defense forces, quoted by the Qatar news agency, said about 50 security force members had been wounded by demonstrators using “swords, knives and daggers.”
“Security forces had to fire tear gas and stun grenades to avoid losses,” the statement said, adding that the military had deployed in Manama “under orders to take all necessary measure to preserve peace and stability for citizens and residents.”
Gulf Arab foreign ministers were due to meet later in the day in Manama to discuss the unrest in Bahrain.
Britain’s foreign minister, William Hague, voiced deep concern and urged the Bahraini police to use restraint.
“It is crucial that the Bahraini government moves quickly to carry out its commitment to a transparent investigation into earlier deaths and extends this to include today’s events and any alleged human rights abuses,” he said.
King Hamad has offered condolences to relatives of the two men killed earlier this week and promised to investigate. The government says it has detained those thought responsible.
The police raid was short and sharp. Within 20 minutes protesters had fled, leaving tents, blankets and rubbish behind them as teargas wafted through the air, a Reuters reporter said.
One protester said he had driven away two people who had been wounded by rubber bullets.
A teenager shepherded a sobbing woman into a car, saying she had been separated from her two-year-old daughter in the chaos. At a main hospital, about 200 people gathered to mourn and protest, some shouting slogans against the ruling family.
Helicopters later clattered over the city and tow-trucks dragged away cars abandoned by protesters, their tires squealing on the tarmac because the brakes were still on.
Army troops in beige camouflage replaced riot police at Pearl square. Asian municipality workers in yellow overalls and orange vests began collecting garbage from the area.
On Wednesday the Wefaq party demanded a new constitution that would move the country toward democracy.
“We’re not looking for a religious state. We’re looking for a civilian democracy ... in which people are the source of power, and to do that we need a new constitution,” its secretary-general Sheikh Ali Salman told a news conference.
Elsewhere in Manama, life went on as usual. In one upscale area, foreigners were sipping cappuccinos in street cafes or strolling past in jogging clothes.
The religious divide between Bahrain’s leaders and most of their subjects has led to sporadic unrest since the 1990s, making the country more prone to unrest than other Gulf states where rulers tacitly use oil wealth to buy political submission.
Regional power Saudi Arabia, and the United States -- which bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain -- both view Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family as a bulwark against Shi‘ite Iran.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa introduced a new constitution giving Bahrainis more political rights a decade ago, but the opposition says he has not gone far enough to introduce democracy. Most of the cabinet are royal family members.
The king’s uncle, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, has been prime minister since the modern state was founded in 1971. Wefaq wants him fired and replaced by an elected prime minister.
“The people demand the fall of the regime,” protesters chanted at the hospital, echoing a slogan of Egyptians who ousted President Hosni Mubarak last week after an 18-day revolt.
Protesters who on Wednesday had expressed confidence they were secure in the square, said they had no idea the police would bust in and forcibly break up their encampment.
“There was no single warning,” one demonstrator said. “It was like attacking an enemy. People were sleeping peacefully.”
Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Samia Nakhoul