MANAMA (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters marched in the Bahraini capital Manama Monday, trying to retake a landmark roundabout and blocking a highway on the eve of the first anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising in the Gulf Arab kingdom.
Inspired by revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahrainis - mainly from the Shi‘ite majority - took to the streets on February 14, 2011 to demand democratic reform. The Sunni Muslim-led government crushed the protests a month later.
Monday, they tried to reoccupy a symbolic square where demonstrators camped out for a month from February 14, 2011. They advanced about 2 km (1.5 miles) before police stopped them by firing teargas and rubber bullets, a Reuters witness said.
Traffic came to a standstill on the main thoroughfare into the capital, and teargas canisters, rubber pellets and rocks littered the highway.
Some fled into nearby Shi‘ite villages and into the Budaiya district where heavy clashes continued for about an hour as youths threw petrol bombs, iron bars and rocks. Police fired teargas and stun grenades. Two helicopters hovered overhead.
The events took police by surprise after hundreds broke off from an organized march led by Wefaq, and ran onto the highway.
“It (took them) by surprise, they were not expecting anyone to do that,” said Sayed, 25, an activist from the town of Aali.
Sheikh Ali Salman, leader of the largest Shi‘ite opposition group Wefaq, has called on youths to eschew violence.
Chief of public security Tariq Al Hassan described the protesters as hooligans causing chaos and rioting. “Freedom of expression must be exercised in a civilized manner,” the statement said without giving details of injuries or detainees.
The Western-allied Arab state is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet and is a key ally of Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter which has itself faced sporadic Shi‘ite unrest.
Wefaq and other opposition parties want constitutional changes that would give the elected chamber of parliament the authority to form governments.
The government, dominated by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, has given parliament extra powers of scrutiny over ministers and budgets but not moved on the bigger opposition demands.
Monday the state news agency announced two cabinet changes, appointing a pro-government Shi‘ite, Sadiq al-Shehabi, to minister of health and Kamal Ahmed as transport minister.
Jasim Husain, a senior Wefaq member, said Ahmed had a reputation as a reformer because of his work with the Economic Development Board and his portfolio could include revamping of the aviation sector, including struggling carrier Gulf Air.
Saturday, prominent activist Nabeel Rajab, a hero to the Shi‘ite street, led several hundred people in the direction of the roundabout but police dispersed the march with teargas.
Two American rights lawyers who came to observe events this week were arrested and deported for entering as tourists.
One of the activists, who call themselves Witness Bahrain, said after Monday’s clash that the use of teargas was provoking violent clashes. “Teargas was not a last response, it was not crowd control,” said Brian Terrell of Voices for Creative Nonviolence, who is still in Bahrain.
John Timoney, a former Miami police chief hired to help Bahrain after criticism of last year’s crackdown, told Reuters that youths were escalating violence without cause. He has also defended the use of teargas.
“Even (for) unlicensed peaceful protest, we are trying to develop protocols to handle those,” he said. “If you can keep it within certain parameters, then as long as you are not causing chaos and closing highways, then we can probably live with it.”
The opposition say they have noticed no improvement in police behavior, accusing police of using harsh tactics to try to suppress dissent on the streets of Shi‘ite villages.
They say the death toll has risen to more than 60 from 35 last June when a period of martial law ended, saying some of the deaths came from the effects of heavy use of tear gas. The interior minister disputes the causes of death.
Reporting by Andrew Hammond; Writing by Firouz Sedarat Editing by Maria Golovnina