Bahrain protesters return to square as military withdraws

Saturday, February 19, 2011

CAIRO/MANAMA - Anti-government protesters returned to Lulu Square in Bahraini capital Manama Saturday, despite calls by the crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, for calm.

Thousands of people headed to the square, which has become the focal point of protests, after the military began to withdraw.

They were carrying Bahraini flags and chanting, “peaceful, peaceful”. Protesters started cheering when riot police also began to retreat from the square, Al-Jazeera reported.

Sheikh Salman, who is also the deputy supreme commander of the armed forces, had ordered the military to withdraw from the streets “with immediate effect” and said that “police will continue to oversee law and order”.

“Join us to calm the situation, so that we can announce a day of mourning for our lost sons,” he said on state TV.

At least four protesters were killed Thursday in clashes with police. Several more were injured Friday when the army fired live ammunition at demonstrators.

There was no clear casualty count available Saturday.

Health Minister Faisal Ben Yacoub Al Hamar said six people had been wounded overnight.

But doctors at Salmaniya hospital, where the wounded have been taken for the last few days, said they had received at least 66 injured people.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague Saturday urged the Bahraini authorities “to reach out to the protesters and to hold to account those responsible for deaths,” while expressing deep concern over reports that journalists were being harassed.

US President Barack Obama told King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa in a phone conversation late Friday that the country’s stability “depends upon respect for the universal rights of the people of Bahrain, and a process of meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis”.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she was “deeply concerned” by reports about the the use of violence by the Bahraini security forces.

King Hamad had asked the crown prince to lead a national dialogue with all parties, but the main opposition bloc said they would not hold any talks until “tanks are off the streets”.

Bahraini protesters, who have been inspired by successful anti- regime uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, were initially calling for democratic reforms, but have now upped that call to nothing less than a regime change.

More than 80 percent of the million-strong population is Muslim - two-thirds are Shiites, while the ruling family are Sunnis. Many Shiites feel discriminated against.

Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy. Its prime minister Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa has been in power since 1971 - the longest-serving unelected prime minister in the world.

The protests have raised concern in Washington, as Bahrain is a key US ally and hosts its Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

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