Bahrain opposition leader back as thousands rally

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Manama, Feb 26 (AFP) Opposition leader Hassan Mashaimareturned to Bahrain from self-imposed exile today, asthousands of protesters marched in the capital Manama todemand the Sunni rulers stand down.

"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, who hadbeen in Britain, told reporters at his home.

The Shiite leader was among 25 men in Bahrain who hadbeen charged in October with forming an illegal organisation,engaging in and financing terrorism and spreading false andmisleading information.

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 arrest warrant against him byInterpol before releasing him Friday after confirmation of hispardon.

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.

Manama''s Pearl Square, which has become the epicentreof protests that began on February 14, has been transformedinto a makeshift camp where protesters have kept daily vigilin hundreds of tents.

Thousands of protesters massed at the square onSaturday and then 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.

Seven people have been killed by security forces sincethe beginning of the protests against the Al-Khalifa dynasty,which has ruled for some 200 years.

Bahraini opposition MPs said today they were stillawaiting details on a proposed dialogue with the governmentbefore agreeing to the talks. (AFP)

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