Manama: Bahraini police stormed a protest camp in central Manama on Thursday, killing three people in a swift move to prevent protesters from emulating Egyptians whose Tahrir Square protests helped topple Hosni Mubarak.
“Police are coming, they are shooting teargas at us,” one protester told Reuters by telephone as the crackdown began. Another said: “I am wounded, I am bleeding. They’re killing us.”
Armoured vehicles rumbled through the capital overnight to regain control of Pearl Square, a road junction demonstrators had sought to turn into a protest base like Cairo’s Tahrir.
Thousands of overwhelmingly Shi’ite protesters, emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to Bahrain’s streets three days ago demanding more say in the Gulf Arab kingdom where a Sunni Muslim family rules over a majority Shi’ite population.
“I was there. The men were running away, but the women and kids could not run as easily, some are still inside (the square),” Ibrahim Mattar, a lawmaker from the main Shi’ite opposition Wefaq party, said of the police swoop at 3 a.m. local time.
“It is confirmed two have died,” he said. “More are in critical condition.”
Another Wefaq MP, Sayed Hadi, said a third protester had been killed, bringing the overall death toll to five since protests began.
Bahrain’s interior ministry said that security forces had cleared Pearl roundabout of demonstrators, and that a section of a main road was temporarily blocked.
“This is real terrorism,” said Abdul Jalil Khalil, also from Wefaq, which has walked out of parliament and was due to meet later in the day to decide a response to the events.
“Whoever took the decision to attack the protest was aiming to kill.”
From a distance, the square appeared nearly empty of protesters early on Thursday. Abandoned tents, blankets and rubbish dotted the area, and teargas wafted through the air.
One protester said he had driven away two people who had been wounded by rubber bullets.
A teenager shepherded a sobbing woman into a car, saying she had been separated from her 2-year-old daughter in the chaos. At a main hospital, about 200 people gathered to mourn and protest.
On Wednesday the Wefaq party demanded a new constitution that would move the country toward democracy.
“We’re not looking for a religious state. We’re looking for a civilian democracy...in which people are the source of power, and to do that we need a new constitution,” its secretary-general Sheikh Ali Salman told a news conference.
Elsewhere in Manama, life went on as usual. In one upscale area, foreigners were sipping cappuccinos in street cafes or strolling past in jogging clothes.
The religious divide that separates Bahrain’s ruling family from most of its subjects has led to sporadic unrest since the 1990s, and the country’s stability is being closely watched as protest movements blow through North Africa and the Middle East.
Bahrain, a small oil producer, is more prone to unrest than most of the Gulf Arab region where, in an unwritten pact, rulers have traded part of their oil wealth for political submission.
Regional power Saudi Arabia, and the United States -- which bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain -- both view the ruling Khalifa family as a bulwark against Shi’ite Iran.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa introduced a new constitution giving Bahrainis more political rights a decade ago, but the opposition says he has not gone far enough to introduce democracy. Most of the cabinet are royal family members.
Demands have mounted that the king fires his uncle, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been prime minister since the modern state was founded in 1971. Wefaq members say they want elections for prime minister.
Protesters’ wrath had already been stirred up by the deaths of two of their number during this week’s demonstrations, the second killed in clashes at the funeral of the first.
“The people demand the fall of the regime”, protesters chanted outside the hospital, echoing a slogan of Egyptian demonstrators who ousted President Mubarak after an 18-day revolt.
King Hamad has offered condolences to relatives of the two men killed on Monday and Tuesday and said a committee would investigate. The government says it has detained those thought to be responsible for the killings.
Protesters who on Wednesday had expressed confidence they were secure in the square, said they had no idea the police would bust in and forcibly break up their encampment.
“There was no single warning,” one demonstrator said. “It was like attacking an enemy. People were sleeping peacefully.”