MANAMA/DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain’s foreign minister said Monday Saudi and UAE forces called in to help quell street unrest would leave only when “any external threat” he associated with Iran was seen to be gone.
Pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain have denied any link with the Islamic Republic.
Bahrain’s prime minister described the several weeks of anti-government protests by the Sunni Muslim-ruled country’s disaffected Shi’ite majority as a coup attempt and said those who took part would be held to account.
The mostly Shi’ite protesters in the outpouring of unrest in February and March demanded more freedom, an end to discrimination and a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain, a U.S. ally that hosts Washington’s Fifth Fleet.
Bahraini rulers crushed the protests last month, deploying security forces in the capital and calling in troops from Gulf neighbours Saudi Arabia and the UAE under the aegis of a Gulf defence pact, a move demonstrators saw as an act of war.
Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa hinted that Gulf troops could be there for some time, saying they would remain until what he described as a threat to Gulf Arab countries from nearby Shi’ite power Iran was over.
“There are no Saudi forces, there are GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) forces and they will leave when they are done with any external threat,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of a conference in the United Arab Emirates.
Asked to elaborate, he said: “The external threat is a regional one. The external threat is a complete misunderstanding between the GCC and Iran. This is a threat.”
“I am not pointing fingers here, but what we are seeing from Iran, on Bahrain, on Saudi Arabia, on Kuwait, the occupation of the islands of the Emirates, doesn’t make the situation a positive one. It keeps it a constant threat, and ongoing one.”
The protesters said they had no loyalty to Iran, rejecting accusations by Bahraini officials that they were supported by the Islamic Republic and the Shi’ite militant movement Hezbollah, which denied training demonstrators.
Iran complained to the United Nations about the deployment of GCC forces in Bahrain and said it could not remain indifferent to the crackdown on protests.
“Bahrain has witnessed a coup attempt,” Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa said in remarks carried by pro-government media Monday. “No violators would get away with it. All co-conspirators and abettors must be held accountable.”
The unrest has stirred tension in the world’s leading oil-exporting region as Sunni Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and Iran have traded accusations of meddling in Bahrain affairs.
The government has arrested hundreds of people who took part in the protests and state-owned firms have fired Shi’ite workers who were absent from work during a strike called for by unions.
The International Trade Union Confederation said in a statement that about 2,000 workers who took part in the protests had been sacked, including 22 local trade union leaders. “The authorities are clearly targeting and discriminating against workers due to their involvement in union activities,” the trade union group said. It called for the International Labour Organisation to form a commission to probe the firings.
At least 29 people have been killed since the protests started ,including six non-Shi’ites. The six included two foreigners — an Indian and a Bangladeshi — and four policemen.
Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a former parliamentarian from the Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq, said police attacked Sunday a traditional Shi’ite celebration marking the death of the wife of a central Shi’ite figure from early Islamic history.
He said that around 10 people were injured but afraid to go to hospitals, and said a Shi’ite cleric who gave a speech there had since gone missing.
Wefaq also said the government had destroyed a Shi’ite mosque in the village of Salmabad, adding to a number of places of worship that have been demolished by security forces during the crackdown.
“They usually come with bulldozers and police forces surrounding them,” said Mattar, saying the government suggested the mosques were built without permission, a claim he dismissed.
“There is no explanation for this except attacks against Shi’ites in general,” he said.
Reporting by Frederik Richter in Manama and Martina Fuchs in Dubai; editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mark Heinrich