Mon, Feb 21, 2011 - Page 4 News List

Bahrain urged to reform as protesters hold Pearl Square

AFP and AP, MANAMA

Bahraini protesters camped out in Manama’s Pearl Square yesterday as police held back amid growing pressure on the Sunni Muslim ruling family to open meaningful talks with the Shiite-led opposition.

“The night passed off without any problems,” said Tahar, a student who had stayed up all night with dozens of other youngsters to guard the central square, which has been the focal point of the demonstrations that have rocked the small but strategic Persian Gulf kingdom since last Monday.

“We are frightened that the security forces will launch another surprise attack like they did on Thursday,” he said, referring to a nocturnal police raid to clear the square that left four people dead.

Protesters flocked back to the square on Saturday after the army, which had deployed on the streets of the capital following the raid, was ordered to return to its base.

Riot police fired tear gas in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse the demonstrators, but then withdrew as Bahraini Crown Prince Salman, the deputy commander of armed forces, ordered police and troops alike to hold back.

Bahrain’s main trade union said it was calling off its general strike from last Monday, saying its demand for the right to demonstrate peacefully had been heeded.

“In the light of the army’s withdrawal and respect of the right to demonstrate peacefully, the general union for labor syndicates has decided to suspend the general strike and return to work on Monday,” the union said.

The heir to the throne has been tasked with launching a sweeping dialogue with the opposition.

Bahrain’s rulers appear desperate to open a political dialogue after sharp criticism from Western allies and statements by overseers of next month’s Formula One race that the unrest could force the cancellation of Bahrain’s premier international event.

A leader of the main Shiite political bloc, Abdul-Jalil Khalil, said the opposition was considering the monarchy’s offer for dialogue, but he noted that no direct talks were yet under way.

The protest demands include abolishing the monarchy’s privileges to set policies and appoint all key political posts and address long-standing claims of discrimination and abuses against Shiites, who represents about 70 percent of Bahrain’s 525,000 citizens.

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