50 hurt as Bahrain authorities fire on defiant protesters

In second straight day, thousands defy government and march in uprising that seeks to bring down the whole ruling monarchy.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
February 19, 2011 04:20
4 minute read.
Protesters in Bahrain clash with army forces.

Bahrain protests 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

MANAMA, Bahrain  — Security forces opened fire Friday on Bahraini protesters for a second straight day, wounding at least 50 people as thousands defied the government and marched toward Pearl Square in an uprising that sought to break the political grip of the Gulf nation's leaders.

Once again, Bahrain authorities showed no hesitation in using force against demonstrators who ramped up demands to bring down the whole ruling monarchy.

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US President Barack Obama condemned the use of violence against the protesters in Bahrain, as well as in Libya and Yemen, where heavy crackdowns by old-guard regimes were reported.

The continuing wave of anger in the Arab world followed successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where hundreds of thousands of people celebrated the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak one week ago.

Critically injured protesters were again rushed to Manama's main Salmaniya hospital, which also received the dead and wounded after riot police smashed a protest encampment early Thursday in the landmark square.

Some doctors and medics on emergency medical teams were in tears as they tended to the wounded. X-rays showed bullets still lodged inside victims.

Of the 50 injured, seven were critically hurt, a Health Ministry official said. Seven people have died in Bahrain's unrest this week, including five on Thursday, and more than 200 have been wounded.

Protesters on Friday described a chaotic scene of tear gas clouds, bullets coming from many directions and people slipping in pools of blood as they sought cover. Some claimed the gunfire came from either helicopters or sniper nests.

An Associated Press cameraman saw army units shooting anti-aircraft weapons, fitted on top of armored personnel carriers, above the protesters, in apparent warning shots and attempts to drive them back from security cordons about 200 yards (200 meters) from the square.

Then the soldiers turned firearms on the crowd, one marcher said.

"People started running in all directions and bullets were flying," said Ali al-Haji, a 27-year-old bank clerk. "I saw people getting shot in the legs, chest, and one man was bleeding from his head."

"My eyes were full of tear gas, there was shooting and there was a lot of panic," said Mohammed Abdullah, a 37-year-old businessman taking part in the protest.

The clash came hours after funeral mourners and worshippers at Friday prayers called for the toppling of the Western-allied monarchy in the tiny island nation that is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet, the centerpiece of the Pentagon's efforts to confront Iranian military influence. Some members of Bahrain's Sunni ruling system worry that Shi'ite powerhouse Iran could use Bahrain's majority Shi'ites as a further foothold in the region.

Bahrain's king appointed Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa to lead a dialogue "with all parties," though it was unclear whether furious protesters would respond to the overture. Speaking on Bahrain state TV, Salman expressed condolences for "these painful days" and called for unity.

"We are at a crossroads," Salman said. "Youths are going out on the street believing that they have no future in the country, while others are going out to express their love and loyalty. But this country is for you all, for the Shi'ites and Sunnis."

The cries against the king and his inner circle — at a main Shi'ite mosque and at burials for those killed in Thursday's crushing attack — reflect a sharp escalation of the political uprising, which began with calls to weaken the Sunni monarchy's power and address claims of discrimination against the Shiite majority.

The protesters had called for the monarchy to give up control over top government posts and all critical decisions and address deep grievances by Shi'ites, who claim they face systematic discrimination and poverty and are blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

Shi'ites have clashed with police before over their complaints, including in the 1990s. But the growing numbers of Sunnis joining the latest demonstrations surprised authorities, said Simon Henderson, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The Sunnis seem to increasingly dislike what is a very paternalistic government," he said. "As far as the Gulf rulers are concerned, there's only one proper way with this and that is: be tough and be tough early.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said the response of some governments in the Middle East and Africa to the demands of their people was "illegal and excessively heavy-handed," and she condemned the use of military-grade shotguns by Bahrain security forces. The European Union and Human Rights Watch urged Bahrain to order security forces to stop attacks on peaceful protesters.


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