MANAMA (Reuters) - Small protests broke out in Bahrain’s capital for a planned “Day of Rage” on Friday despite a ban under martial law imposed last week, but were quickly crushed by security forces fanned out across Manama.
Helicopters buzzing overhead, extra checkpoints erected on major highways and a large troop presence prevented any major demonstration from kicking off in the small Gulf Arab island kingdom, where a security crackdown last week quelled a month of protests by the mostly Shi’ite Muslim demonstrators.
Bahrain has great strategic importance because it hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet, facing non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran across the Gulf, and is situated off-shore from Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter.
Confronted by mass protests demanding constitutional reform, Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family, from the minority Sunni population, declared security their priority, called in troops from neighboring Sunni-led Gulf states and imposed martial law.
But a few hundred protesters managed a short rally in the Shi’ite village of Diraz on Friday, shouting “down with the regime” as women swathed in black waved Bahraini flags and held up copies of the Quran. But they fled when around 100 riot police fired tear gas and tried to chase them down.
In the village of al-Dair, police fired rounds of tear gas to disperse around 100 protesters who had marched toward a main road next to a runway at Bahrain International Airport.
Residents in nearby streets rushed women and children into their house as police continued to loose tear gas. They said police had also fired birdshot ammunition at protesters.
“After so many deaths, so many sacrifices, we will continue to protest. We just want a new constitution but they’re not prepared for democracy,” one resident said anonymously.
More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi’ites and most are demanding a constitutional monarchy. But calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest helps Iran on the other side of the Gulf.
In signs of rising tensions in the oil-producing region, Bahrain’s government has responded sharply to any signs of what it considers to be interference over its crackdown.
Bahrain expelled diplomats from Iran, just across Gulf waters, when it criticized the clampdown last week. Its foreign minister has formally complained to the Lebanese government over expressions of support from the Shi’ite movement Hezbollah.
Bahrain’s social development minister accused demonstrators on Friday of harboring a “foreign agenda,” but stopped short of blaming Iran. “We found out that those people who were doing it were instigated by a foreign country and by Hezbollah,” Fatima al Beloushi told a news conference in Geneva.
“We have direct proof. Hezbollah has provided training for their people. They were serving a foreign agenda and that is why it was not something for having a better livelihood,” she said.
Internet activists and Shi’ite villages tried to organize marches in different parts of Bahrain on Friday, dubbed the “Day of Rage.” But Wefaq, the mainstream Shi’ite opposition movement which draws tens of thousands when it calls protests, distanced itself from the demonstrations.
“Wefaq affirms the need to protect safety and lives and not to give the killers the opportunity to shed blood,” it said.
So far the largest crowds on Friday were at the sermon of a top Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Issa Qassim. Thousands gathered but did not seek to protest after prayers.
A funeral in the Shi’ite suburb Balad al-Qadim also drew thousands, with crowds carrying Bahraini flags and pumping their fists. They shouted: “Down, down (King) Hamad” and “the people want the fall of the regime.”
Bahrain has banned all marches. But security forces have not broken up the funeral processions of civilians killed in the crackdown — most of which turn into anti-government rallies.
Hani Abdulaziz, 33, died after being hit by rounds of bird shot fired by police near his home. His neighbors said he was left to bleed for an hour after he took shelter in a building.
“People have gotten to the stage where they don’t want dialogue, they want these people out,” said Zahra, a woman from Abdulaziz’s village.
Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal; editing by Mark Heinrich