Bahraini police clashed with protesters yesterday, witnesses said, as the kingdom’s security chief warned citizens not to heed calls by activists to mark the first anniversary of a Shiite-led uprising.
Police fired tear gas and sound grenades at hundreds of demonstrators in what some described as “violent” clashes in Shiite neighborhoods that lasted throughout the night on Sunday and into yesterday morning, the witnesses said.
One witness said that “many” protesters were wounded, but gave no further details. Shiite protesters often seek medical treatment in private homes for fear of retaliation or arrest by government security forces if they check in to a public hospital.
Meanwhile, public security chief Major General Tariq al-Hassan cautioned Bahrainis “not to respond to the inciting calls on [online] social networks to demonstrate,” in a statement published on the official BNA news agency early yesterday.
Hassan warned that security forces would not hesitate to respond to “those that want to take advantage ... to carry out unlawful, irresponsible acts that threaten public order.”
He said the government “will prevent” such actions, but also appealed to citizens not to “escalate tensions.”
Activists called for demonstrations on Sunday, yesterday and today at Manama’s former Pearl Square, the focal point of the Shiite-dominated protests that erupted on Feb. 14 last year and was crushed a month later.
Hassan said that Bahraini forces have already taken the necessary measures to bolster security in anticipation of demonstrations.
Witnesses have reported a heavy security presence at main junctions in Manama since Sunday morning, with a concentration of forces at the al-Farook interchange what was built on Pearl Square after it was razed, a day after the protests were crushed last year.
Meanwhile, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said last year’s events were regrettable, although he downplayed the severity of the threat the protests had posed to the 200-year-old-rule of the Sunni dynasty.
The king says that a massive opposition movement does not really exist in the country.
“I regret the events of the past year,” he told the German weekly Der Spiegel in an interview that was published on Sunday. “But there is no opposition in Bahrain, not in the sense of a united bloc. Such a thing is not in our constitution. There are just people with different views, and that is good.”
Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population of about 525,000 people, but say they have faced decades of discrimination, such as being blocked from top political and security posts.
Bahrain’s Sunni rulers have taken steps on reforms, including giving more powers to parliament. In an announcement early yesterday, the king named a Shiite, Sadok bin Abdulkarim al-Shehabi, as health minister.
The health position is significant because Bahrain’s main hospital figured prominently during the early weeks of the uprising with authorities claiming medical staff aided demonstrators. Dozens of doctors and nurses have been put on trial.