MANAMA (Reuters) - More than 120 protesters have been wounded in clashes with police in Bahrain this week, activists said on Wednesday, in a crackdown to stop majority Shi‘ites breaking out of their neighborhoods to stage protests one year after an uprising.
The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the clashes, while a senior opposition figure said the government had put out feelers on talks to resolve the crisis in the Gulf Arab state.
Police conducted operations into the night in the flashpoint town of Sitra, seizing 15 teenagers in a raid on one building after a police vehicle was damaged by a petrol bomb earlier, residents said.
The streets were deserted with residents staying indoors as dozens of jeeps sped through the streets in apparent search operations. A policeman inside one vehicle fired a tear gas canister over some buildings before hurtling round a corner.
Opposition activists reported similar operations in numerous other Shi‘ite areas of the island including Budaiya as well as Musalla and Sanabis which are on the edge of the capital.
Riot police also used armored personnel carriers that have not been seen on Bahrain’s streets since martial law last year.
“The heightened security presence at this time aims to spread security and reassure all citizens and residents... Expressing opinion must be within the space allowed by the law,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa said in comments on the ministry’s website.
It gave no information on the number of arrests this week.
A U.N. statement said Ban Ki-moon expected Bahrain “to act in accordance with international human rights obligations.”
“The Secretary-General is concerned about reports of clashes in Bahrain between security forces and demonstrators over the past few days,” the statement said.
A medic who works with researchers of an international organization and asked not to be identified said the numbers of wounded in clashes this week was the highest in months.
“There were over 100 cases on Tuesday and 37 of them are bad, with head injuries and fractures,” he said. “On Monday we had 20 people (wounded) in villages around the country.”
The medic said some casualties had been hit by birdshot, controversial ammunition that Bahraini police deny using.
Most of the wounded were treated in village homes or private health clinics because protesters from the Shi‘ite majority fear they will be arrested if they go to hospitals run by the government, which is appointed by the Sunni monarchy.
The protests began as a spontaneous movement embracing both Shi‘ites and Sunnis, cutting across religious and class divides with demands for broad political, social and economic reform.
But they descended into sectarian violence as backroom talks on democratic reforms went nowhere, and hardliners in government and the opposition seized the initiative.
Government forces backed by Saudi troops crushed the month-long revolt last year. By June, when a state of emergency was lifted, 35 people had been killed.
The island tourism and banking hub, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and is aligned with the United States and oil producer Saudi Arabia in their disputes with Iran over its nuclear program, has been in turmoil ever since.
Shi‘ites clash regularly with police, while the opposition and government accused each other of rejecting dialogue.
However, Abduljalil Khalil, who heads the parliamentary caucus of the Shi‘ite Wefaq party, the largest opposition faction, said three senior Wefaq figures met two weeks ago with Royal Court Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed, a powerful figure in the ruling Al-Khalifa family, at the government’s request.
Khalil said they presented the key demand of the opposition, outlined in a statement in October known as the Manama Document, for a referendum on moving towards full parliamentary democracy.
Such a move to curb the extensive powers of the ruling dynasty would be a first in the Gulf.
“He asked if we are ready for dialogue, and we said ‘yes’, but a serious and constructive one,” Khalil said.
“We presented our views on how to get out of this mess. He said they’ll get back to us ... Now we are at the first anniversary of February 14, and security action has not worked. They realize they need to have a political solution.”
Asked if the opposition, which includes Shi‘ite Islamists as well as Sunni and Shi‘ite secularists, would agree to parties close to the government taking part, Khalil said they agreed that the government should hold separate discussions with them.
Highlighting opposition divisions, some activists criticized Wefaq for talking to a man they view as the architect of a policy of boosting Sunni population numbers by settling Pakistanis and some Arabs, a charge the government denies.
Nabeel Rajab, a prominent rights figure who has led some street protests, called the minister the “engineer of ethnic cleansing.” “This destroys any process of dialogue before it starts and shows lack of seriousness.”
“How can we trust our opposition if they meet with such people? They sit with them while telling us something else,” another activist, Sayed, told Reuters. “This is why the February 14 Coalition has become so popular.”
Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman, who confirmed the contacts at a news conference, called on protesting youths this week to avoid being dragged into violent confrontations with police.
A protester called Ahmed, 20, said he had been struck by birdshot on Tuesday during clashes with police in one of several Shi‘ite districts that ring Pearl Roundabout, the hub of last year’s unrest, now home to a National Guard camp and sealed off with barbed wire.
“I threw a rock and then one of them (police) stood and shot straight at me. One of the pellets just missed my head,” he said, sitting on a mattress on the ground in visible pain.
A male nurse who helps treat activists said he had removed all but one of the pellets, pinching the skin around one wound to demonstrate that the projectile was still inside.
An Interior Ministry statement said on Tuesday rioters had been responsible for chaos and vandalism in several villages but gave no information on how many had been wounded or detained.
Spokesman Ahmed Almannai said that those who believed they had been hit by birdshot should approach the authorities to verify the nature of their injuries.
After international pressure, a commission of foreign legal experts investigated last year’s unrest and revealed systematic torture and deaths in police custody during that period.
Violence has intensified since the commission’s report in November and the overall death toll is now around 66.
Six U.S. activists who came to observe how police handled Tuesday’s anniversary protests were detained and deported.
“From early morning on February 14, it was clear that the government had called out all its forces to stop any protests. It was like a state of siege,” they said in a report.
A number of senior U.S. and British officials have been in Manama in the past week, including U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner who called for more effort to heal Bahrain’s rifts.
Editing by Maria Golovnina