MANAMA (Reuters) - Small protests broke out in Bahrain’s capital for a planned “Day of Rage” Friday despite a ban under martial law imposed last week, but were quickly crushed by security forces fanned out across Manama.
Police entered several Manama suburbs that are home to the majority Shi‘ite population, firing tear gas to scatter small numbers of protesters. Hours later the streets were empty but littered with rocks and overturned skips from residents trying to block police and the spicy scent of tear gas hung in the air.
Bahrain’s leading Shi‘ite opposition group Wefaq said tear gas lead to death by asphyxiation of a 71-year old man, Isa Abdullah in the village of Maameer. It said security forces blockaded Maameer, leaving Abdullah unable to get medical aid.
After a month of mass protests from mostly Shi‘ite demonstrators demanding constitutional reform, Bahrain’s ruling al Khalifa family, from the minority Sunni population, enforced a fierce police crackdown and wiped out protest. They also called in troops from neighbouring Sunni-led Gulf countries.
Bahrain has great strategic importance because it hosts the U.S. 5th Fleet, facing non-Arab Shi‘ite power Iran across the Gulf, and is situated off-shore from oil giant Saudi Arabia.
Friday was the first effort by protesters to regroup. Helicopters buzzed overhead Friday and police erected checkpoints to turn back cars headed to Shi‘ite villages.
A few hundred protesters managed a short rally in the Shi‘ite village of Diraz Friday, shouting “down with the regime” but they fled when around 100 riot police fired tear gas and tried to chase them down.
In the village of al-Dair, police fired tear gas to disperse around 100 protesters who had marched towards a main road next to a runway at Bahrain International Airport.
“After so many deaths, so many sacrifices, we will continue to protest. We just want a new constitution but they’re not prepared for democracy,” said one resident who did not want to be named.
More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi‘ites and most are demanding a constitutional monarchy. But calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest helps Iran on the other side of the Gulf.
Bahrain’s government has responded sharply to any signs of what it considers to be interference over its crackdown.
The island kingdom expelled diplomats from Iran after it criticised the clampdown last week. Its foreign minister formally complained to the Lebanese government over expressions of support for protesters from the Shi‘ite movement Hezbollah.
The Education Ministry also cancelled the scholarships of 40 Bahrainis studying at universities abroad, saying they participated protests calling for the fall of the regime.
Earlier Friday, Bahrain’s social development minister accused demonstrators of harbouring a “foreign agenda,” but stopped short of blaming Iran. “We found out that those people who were doing it were instigated by a foreign country and by Hezbollah,” Fatima al Beloushi told a news conference in Geneva.
“We have direct proof. Hezbollah has provided training for their people. They were serving a foreign agenda and that is why it was not something for having a better livelihood,” she said.
Friday’s “Day of Rage” was called by Internet activists and Shi‘ite villages, but Wefaq, which draws tens of thousands when it calls protests, distanced itself from the demonstrations.
“Wefaq affirms the need to protect safety and lives and not to give the killers the opportunity to shed blood,” it said.
So far the largest crowds Friday were at the sermon of a top Shi‘ite cleric, which drew thousands, and a funeral in the Shi‘ite suburb Balad al-Qadim. Thousands of mourners, carrying Bahraini flags and pumping their fists, shouted: “Down, down (King) Hamad” and “the people want the fall of the regime.”
Hani Abdulaziz, 33, bled to death after being hit by rounds of bird shot fired by police near his home.
“People have gotten to the stage where they don’t want dialogue, they want these people out,” said Zahra, a woman from Abdulaziz’s village.
Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal; editing by Mark Heinrich