Manama (Bahrain) Feb 17 (AP) Army patrols and tankslocked down the capital of this tiny Gulf kingdom after riotpolice swinging clubs and firing tear gas smashed intodemonstrators, many of them sleeping, in a pre-dawn assaulttoday that uprooted their protest camp demanding politicalchange. Medical officials said four people were killed.
Hours after the attack on Manama''s main Pearl Square, themilitary announced on state TV that it had "key parts" of thecapital under its control and that gatherings were banned.
The developments marked a major crackdown by the islandnation''s rulers to put an end to days of protests inspired byEgypt''s revolt against Hosni Mubarak. Tiny Bahrain is a pillarof Washington''s military framework in the region. It hosts theUS Navy''s 5th Fleet, which is a critical counterbalance toIran''s efforts to expand its clout in the region.
The capital Manama was effectively shut down today. Forthe first time, tanks and military checkpoints were deployedin the streets and army patrols circulated. The InteriorMinistry warned Bahrainis to stay off the streets. Banks andother key institutions did not open, and workers stayed home,unable or to afraid to pass through checkpoints to get totheir jobs.
Barbed wire and police cars with flashing blue lightsencircled Pearl Square, the site of anti-government ralliessince Monday. Police cleaned up flattened protest tents andtrampled banners inside the square, littered with brokenglass, tear gas canisters and debris. A body covered in awhite sheet lay in a pool of blood on the side of a road about20 metres from the landmark square.
Demonstrators had been camping out for days around thesquare''s 90-metre monument featuring a giant pearl, making itthe nerve centre of the first anti-government protests toreach the Arab Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The protesters'' demands have two main objectives: forcethe ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over topgovernment posts and all critical decisions, and address deepgrievances held by the country''s majority Shiites who claimthey face systematic discrimination and are effectivelyblocked from key roles in public service and the military.
But among Bahrain''s rulers, the prospect of a prolongedcrisis raised fears of a potential flashpoint between Iran andits Arab rivals in the Gulf. Bahrain''s ruling Sunni dynasty isclosely allied to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab regimes inthe Gulf. Shiite hard-liners in Iran have often expressedkinship and support for Bahrain''s Shiite majority, whichaccounts for 70 per cent of the island''s 500,000 citizens.