March 19, 2011 / 8:43 AM / 7 years ago

Bahrain eases curfew

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain cut curfew hours on Saturday and urged residents to return to work after a crackdown on mainly Shi‘ite Muslim protesters this week raised tensions in the world’s largest oil-producing region.

The call came as a fourth protester died of wounds sustained when troops and police moved on Wednesday to end weeks of unrest that prompted the king to declare martial law and call in troops from Bahrain’s Sunni-ruled neighbor, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Bahrain had the sovereign right to summon security help from its Gulf neighbors but stressed that the solution to the country’s crisis could only come through political dialogue.

”We have made clear that security alone cannot resolve the challenges facing Bahrain,“ Clinton told reporters in Paris after meeting several Arab ministers. ”Violence is not the answer, a political process is.

Bahrain’s largest Shi‘ite Muslim group, Wefaq, said the latest death brought the number of protesters killed since the start of the unrest last month to 11. Four police have also been killed this week, some of them mown down by protesters in cars.

Sunni-ruled Bahrain has since arrested at least nine opposition activists, including two doctors from Manama’s largest public hospital, which remains surrounded by troops who check identities and carry out regular searches.

The ferocity of the crackdown, in which troops and police fanned out across Bahrain, imposed a curfew and banned all public gatherings and marches, has stunned Bahrain’s Shi‘ites and angered the region’s non-Arab Shi‘ite Muslim power, Iran.

Mourners at the funeral of one of the protesters killed in this week’s crackdown were defiant. Shaking their fists and shouting “down with King Hamad,” thousands gathered at the burial of computer technician Ahmed Abdullah Ahsan in the Shi‘ite suburb of Diah on Saturday.

“I‘m not angry. I‘m proud of my son. He is a martyr,” his mother said. “He wanted the end of this regime.”

Ahsan was buried in a plot near the first man killed in the uprising that began last month and whose grave was covered in flowers and photographs. As men lowered the body into the grave, the women, clad in black chadors broke off to hold a small protest at the side of the road.

“Down with the regime,” they shouted.

Police and troops did not intervene despite a blanket ban on all public gatherings.

BACK TO WORK

In an effort to bring life gradually back to normal, the authorities cut back by four hours on Saturday a 12-hour curfew that had been imposed on large areas of the capital Manama.

A man chants anti-government slogans during the burial of Ahmed Abdullah Ahsan in the village of Daih March 19, 2011. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

The curfew now runs from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. from the Seef Mall area in Manama, through the Pearl roundabout and the financial district to the diplomatic area.

The government also urged public employees and both public and private schools and universities to return to work after days of closures and shortened hours.

Some of the larger malls began to reopen on Saturday, after days of closures and there were fewer checkpoints in the streets, though helicopters still buzzed over Shi‘ite areas.

“When people go back to work tomorrow, how will they face each other? How will they be able to look at each other in the office and pretend none of this happened?” said Ahmed, 50.

Slideshow (17 Images)

On Friday, diggers tore down the monument at the center of Pearl roundabout, focal point of weeks of protests, in what the foreign minister said was an effort to erase “bad memories.”

The unrest had brought Bahrain’s economy to a virtual standstill and schools and universities had been closed to prevent sectarian clashes that had begun to erupt daily.

More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi‘ites. Most are campaigning for a constitutional monarchy, but calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest serves Iran, separated from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by only a narrow stretch of Gulf waters.

Shi‘ite Muslim power Iran, which supports Shi‘ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon, complained to the United Nations and asked other neighbors to join it in urging Saudi Arabia to withdraw.

On Saturday, Shi‘ites in Iraq protested in solidarity with their Bahraini co-religionists. A protest also took place on Friday in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, home to the country’s Shi‘ite majority and oil fields.

Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, told a news conference on Friday that more Gulf Arab troops would be arriving and would stay for as long as needed to restore order, though their mission would be limited to guarding strategic facilities such as oil installations.

Bahrain also imposed a night time curfew on fishing, swimming or using the coast. It gave no reason but analysts said it was probably to prevent arms being smuggled to dissidents.

Kuwait was also sending a medical team to Bahrain on Sunday, Bahrain News Agency said. The news comes as doctors complain that access to Salmaniya hospital has been held back by troops.

Doctors said two colleagues who had spoken out about the casualties received during weeks of unrest had been detained and human rights groups have called for all detained to be freed.

“The government is depriving them of their liberty in a completely arbitrary manner, apparently for their leading roles in peaceful protests demanding democracy,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Paris; editing by Sophie Hares and Paul Taylor

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