MANAMA (Reuters) - Several thousand mourners turned out in Bahrain on Friday to bury three of those killed in what the island’s top Shi’ite cleric called a “massacre” ordered by the Sunni ruling family to crush protests inspired by Egypt.
Four protesters were killed and 231 wounded when riot police drove activists from a makeshift camp in Pearl Square in Manama, the capital, on Thursday. Dozens were detained.
The unrest has placed the United States in a now-familiar dilemma, torn between its desire for stability in a longstanding Arab ally and a need to uphold its own principles about the right of people to demonstrate for democratic change.
Revered cleric Sheikh Issa Qassem denounced the police attack on the square and said the authorities had shut the door to dialogue, but stopped short of calling for street protests.
“The massacre was on purpose to kill and to hurt and not to clear any demonstration,” he said.
People interrupted his Friday prayer sermon in the village of Diraz, shouting “The people want the fall of the regime.”
Qassem, an influential but cautious figure who normally shuns politics, disappointed some in the audience of thousands who had hoped he would appeal for protests to be stepped up.
The mostly Shi’ite demonstrators had hoped to turn Pearl Square into a base like Cairo’s Tahrir Square, fulcrum of the popular revolt that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Shi’ites form 70 percent of Bahraini nationals ruled by the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty, the U.S. State Department estimates.
Several thousand Shi’ites joined funeral processions in the island village of Sitra, south of Manama, for three of the dead.
Police stayed away, although a helicopter circled overhead. On Tuesday, one protester was killed at the funeral of another.
In a loyalist demonstration in Manama, hundreds of people waving flags and pictures of the king streamed through the streets, local television footage showed.
Inside the Sitra mosque, men washed the body of 22-year-old student Mahmoud Abu Taki, who was peppered with buckshot.
“He told me before he went there, ‘don’t worry, father, I want freedom’,” said his father, Mekki Abu Taki, 53.
“This is a failed government,” said Abu Taki, a real estate company manager. “Of course the protests will continue. The government here is like people of the jungle.”
The flag-draped coffins of his son and Ali Mansour Khudeir, 58, were driven to the cemetery atop vehicles. Three protesters were buried there and the fourth in Karzakan village.
“Trial, trial for the criminal gang,” the crowd shouted. “Justice, freedom and constitutional monarchy.”
The Gulf Arab state is a close ally of the United States and Saudi Arabia, which see it as a bulwark against Shi’ite Iran.
The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which projects U.S. military power across the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan, is based near Manama.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Bahrain on Thursday to use restraint and to keep its promise “to hold accountable those who have used excessive force.”
The unrest in Bahrain, a regional banking hub and a minor oil producer, has shaken foreign confidence in the economy.
The cost of insuring Bahraini sovereign debt against default for five years hit fresh 18-month highs, with the instrument quoted at 300 basis points, up 19 from Thursday’s close.
Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said the police had to act against the Pearl Square protest camp to save Bahrain from the “brink of a sectarian abyss.”
But Hassan Radi, 64, a lawyer in Sitra, contested that.
“Nobody wants to be sectarian, but the people are forced into it when they are discriminated against. No jobs, no respect, this is obvious,” he said outside the mosque.
“What they are demanding is ... a modern state with a real democratic constitution that ensures their rights and equality.”
In 1999 King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa enacted a constitution allowing elections for a parliament with some powers, but royals still dominate a cabinet led by the king’s uncle who has been premier for 40 years. Shi’ites feel cut out of decision-making, as well as from jobs in the army and security forces.
Ibrahim Mattar, a lawmaker from the main Shi’ite bloc Wefaq, whose 17 members resigned from the 40-seat assembly on Thursday, said only 11 people remained missing after the police attack. Wefaq MPs said on Thursday about 60 people were missing.
Britain’s foreign minister, William Hague, advocated a dialogue on the constitution between the government and opposition that “ought to lead to further reforms in the political system and responding to legitimate grievances.”
Saudi Arabia fears unrest spreading to its own Shi’ite community, a minority there but concentrated in the eastern oil-producing area of the world’s top crude exporter.
Gulf Arab foreign ministers meeting in Manama on Thursday stressed their solidarity and support for Bahrain and said they would not accept foreign intervention in its affairs.
Unrest which toppled the long-serving leaders of Egypt and Tunisia in recent weeks has spread across the Arab world. This week has seen deadly protests in Libya, Yemen and Iraq.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Tong in London; Writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Philippa Fletcher