Bahrain suspends reconciliation talks with opposition groups

MANAMA (Reuters) - The Bahraini government has officially suspended reconciliation talks with opposition groups aimed at ending nearly three years of political deadlock in the U.S.-allied country.

Anti-government protesters carrying Bahraini flags and photos of Shi'ite scholar Isa Qassim march during an anti-government rally organized by main opposition group al-Wefaq in Budaiya, west of Manama, January 3, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

State news agency BNA said late on Wednesday that government representatives made the decision after opposition members failed to show up for a scheduled meeting in Manama.

The breakdown raises the prospect of more political instability on the Sunni-ruled island, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which has been hit by bouts of civil unrest since mass protests led by the majority Shi’ites in 2011.

The opposition stopped attending the meetings as long ago as September to protest against the arrest of Khalil al-Marzouq, a senior leader of the opposition group Al-Wefaq, on charges of inciting terrorism.

A government spokesman was not immediately available to comment on Thursday.

“The participants in the National Dialogue have today decided to suspend sessions. They have announced their decision after attending the 28th session,” the news agency, BNA, said.

The agency said government representatives and members of parliament blamed “five political associations” for the breakdown in dialogue.

Marzouq, who has since been released on bail, blamed the government for the collapse and said the opposition was still committed to dialogue.

“The Authority had not been looking for partners ... because it does not believe in partnership,” Marzouq said in comments carried by Wefaq’s website.

The talks began in February last year, part of a new drive to end two years of political deadlock after mass protests led by majority Shi’ite Muslims erupted in early 2011 demanding reforms and a bigger share in the Sunni-led government.

But the talks made little progress, with both sides unable to compromise on the opposition’s main demands for a constitutional monarchy and a government formed from within an elected parliament.

The unrest has turned the small state into a frontline in a region-wide tussle for influence between Shi’ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.

Representatives of the government and parliament said they would continue “consultations and national work towards consolidating political gains”, BNA said without elaborating.

Reporting by Sami Aboudi; editing by Yara Bayoumy, John Stonestreet, Elizabeth Piper