MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahraini police fired teargas and birdshot to disperse scattered protests across the country on Wednesday, as Shi‘ite Muslims responded to a call by online activists for pro-democracy demonstrations.
The main opposition group said around 60 rallies were held in 40 locations, in an upsurge of a two-and-a-half-year-old campaign to push the Sunni Muslim ruling family for more democracy in the Shi‘ite-majority nation of 1.25 million people.
The United States temporarily closed its embassy and Bahrani authorities tightened security after opposition figures used social media to call for rallies.
Small protests passed off peacefully across Bahrain earlier in the day, witnesses and activists said, but demonstrators and riot police clashed in some areas as evening fell.
Security forces converged on the al-Seef district of Manama after activists used Twitter to encourage demonstrators to gather there, in defiance of a blanket ban on protests in the capital.
In a village west of Manama, a standoff deteriorated into a clash between police on one side of a barbed wire fence they had erected overnight and about 300 demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans on the other.
Witnesses said police charged the crowd, firing birdshot and teargas. Similar clashes occurred in other Shi‘ite villages where demonstrators threw fire-bombs at police.
The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights activist group said at least 10 people suffered from teargas inhalation or were wounded by birdshot. A spokesman for the main opposition Al Wefaq Society said two people were in a serious condition.
“Despite the campaign of intimidation and surrounding villages with barbed wire, thousands of people turned up for the protests,” said Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.
The Interior Ministry reported that an Asian worker had been injured by a fire-bomb as he tried to open a road blocked by protesters in a village south of Manama, and said burning tires had been used to block a main road in Muharraq to the northeast.
It described the use of fire-bombs and road blocks as “terrorism”, for which new laws passed this month allow tougher penalties including longer prison terms and the stripping of Bahraini nationality.
Police arrested a woman driver and other occupants of her car, saying she had tried to run over a policeman at a road block.
The concerted new pro-democracy push is being driven by “Tamarrod” (Rebellion), a loose association of opposition activists who coalesced in early July.
Tamarrod is named after the Egyptian movement that helped muster massive protests against President Mohamed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood before the military removed the country’s first freely-elected leader on July 3.
The Bahrain opposition complains of discrimination against majority Shi‘ites in areas such as employment and public services, and is demanding a constitutional monarchy with a government chosen from within a democratically-elected parliament. The government denies any discrimination.
Bahrain, a tiny island state that hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet as a bulwark for U.S.-aligned Gulf monarchies against Iran, has suffered bouts of unrest since February 2011 when a Shi‘ite-led uprising demanded the al-Khalifa dynasty give up power.
The authorities crushed the revolt, one of a series of “Arab Spring” upheavals, but protests and clashes have persisted, despite talks between government and opposition.
That unrest has planted Bahrain on the front line of a tussle for regional influence between Shi‘ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.
Writing by Sami Aboudi and Angus McDowall; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Robin Pomeroy