Bahrain king reshuffles cabinet as thousands rally

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Manama, Feb 26 (AFP) Bahrain''s king reshuffled hiscabinet today, under pressure as an exiled opposition leaderreturned and thousands of protesters marched in Manama todemand the Sunni rulers stand down.

"His Majesty King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa todayformally swore in new ministers covering five cabinetportfolios," the government said in a statement withoutelaborating.

The move came on the 13th day of protests calling forreforms in the country, as opposition leader Hassan Mashaimareturned home to Bahrain from self-imposed exile in Britain.

"The time has come for true unity and our prioritytoday is for the opposition to sit down with the protesters atPearl Square and clearly set our demands," Mashaima toldreporters at his home.

The Shiite leader was among 25 men charged in Octoberwith forming an illegal organisation, engaging in andfinancing terrorism and spreading false and misleadinginformation.

Mashaima was in Britain for medical treatment when thecharges were pressed last year. He had remained there untilthe group was granted royal pardon this week.

Lebanese authorities had arrested Mashaima on Tuesdaybecause of an outstanding Interpol warrant against him. He wasfreed on Friday after confirmation of his pardon.

King Hamad''s pardon came amid daily protests mainly byBahrain''s majority Shiite community, which complains ofdiscrimination and is pushing for power to be transferred fromthe Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty to an elected government.

Pearl Square, which has become the epicentre ofanti-regime demonstrations, has been transformed into amakeshift camp where protesters have kept daily vigil inhundreds of tents.

Thousands of protesters massed there on Saturday andthen marched out along a major highway chanting "leave Hamad,leave Hamad," blocking traffic.

They marched up to the the walled compound where theforeign ministry is located, stopping outside the building tochant "Down, down Hamad!"Then the massive, flag-waving crowd proceeded up thestreet, which is flanked by towering buildings housing banks,to the cries of "the people want to topple the regime!"The demonstration eventually wound its way back toPearl Square, ending where it began.

Official opposition groups have stopped short ofdemanding outright regime change, instead calling for majorreforms, including an elected prime minister and the creationof a "real" constitutional monarchy. (AFP)

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