Bahrain reform urged as protesters stand firm

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Manama, Feb 20 (AFP) Bahrain''s Sunni Muslim rulingfamily came under increased pressure to open in-depthnegotiations with the Shiite-led opposition today, asprotesters erected more tents on the capital''s Pearl Square.

Dozens of workers also joined the protesters, andmore than 1,000 medics marched on the square to demand theresignation of the health minister, whom they accused ofslowing aid to protesters during a deadly police crackdown.

After nightfall, an AFP correspondent reportedthousands more people converging on the roundabout, which hasbeen the focal point of demonstrations that have rocked thesmall but strategic Gulf kingdom since February 14.

An early morning raid on the square on Thursdayresulted in the deaths of four people and was followed by thearmy deploying there.

But protesters flocked back yesterday after thearmy was ordered to return to base.

Riot police fired tear gas in an unsuccessfulattempt to disperse them but then withdrew as Crown PrinceSalman, deputy commander of the armed forces, ordered policeand troops to hold back.

After their first night since returning to thesquare passed peacefully, protesters erected more tents thisafternoon, signalling they were not planning to leave any timesoon.

Tahar, one student who had stayed up overnight toguard the square, told AFP that the night had passedpeacefully.

But "we are frightened that the security forceswill launch another surprise attack like they did onThursday," he added.

With the focus switching to talks rather thanclashes, however, Bahrain''s main trade union called off ageneral strike it had organised for tomorrow, saying its maindemand for the right to demonstrate peacefully had been met.

"In the light of the army''s withdrawal and respectof the right to demonstrate peacefully, the general union forlabour syndicates has decided to suspend the general strikeand return to work on Monday," the union said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged reformsin Washington''s tiny Shiite-majority Gulf ally, where the USFifth Fleet is based, calling violence against anti-regimeprotesters "absolutely unacceptable."

The heir to the throne has been tasked by hisfather, King Hamad, with launching a wide-reaching dialoguewith the opposition.

But emboldened by Arab uprisings which have toppledthe strongmen of Tunisia and Egypt since last month, theopposition has raised the stakes, demanding a "realconstitutional monarchy" and the government''s resignation.

(AFP)

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