The Bahraini military fired live ammunition at anti-government demonstrators Friday, inflicting casualties on marchers who tried to reach the scene of a deadly crackdown the day before, witnesses said.
Hundreds of predominantly Shiite anti-government protesters were marching toward a public hospital following a funeral for a demonstrator who was killed Thursday when riot police overran a protest encampment at Pearl Square. The procession then suddenly diverted toward the square, which protesters had sought to turn into this tiny kingdom’s equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of demonstrations that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt last week.
At Pearl Square, army armoured personnel carriers had been parked all day to secure the area and prevent protesters from reaching the site. “The APCs came, three or four of them, and started firing shots,” Mazen Mahdi, a Bahraini photojournalist who was accompanying the procession, said in an interview. “The first was a warning shot in the air. But after that, they just opened fire at the people.” (Washington Post) Mahdi described the shooting as live fire from machine guns. After about 30 minutes, the police, who had retreated to let the APCs approach, returned and fired tear gas, dispersing all demonstrators from the area. Mahdi said he saw ambulance crews being prevented from reaching the site. “They shot at the ambulances when they came in,” he said. (Washington Post)
“They are just shooting us. Now there is more than 20 injured people in the hospital,” a witness told al-Jazeera TV. “One guy has already passed away because he got shot in his head.” (BBC)
One protester, 27-year-old bank clerk Ali al-Haji, told AP news agency that live ammunition was used. “People started running in all directions and bullets were flying. I saw people getting shot in the legs, chest, and one man was bleeding from his head,” he said. (BBC)
“The regime has broken something inside of me,” said Ahmed Makki Abu Taki, whose 23-year-old brother Mahmoud was killed in the pre-dawn sweep through Pearl Square’s protest camp. “We used to demand for the prime minister to step down, but now our demand is for the ruling family to get out,” he said. (CBC)
“Our demands were peaceful and simple at first,” Mohamed Ali, 40, a civil servant, said as he choked back tears. “We wanted the prime minister to step down. Now the demands are harsher and have reached the pinnacle of the pyramid. We want the whole government to fall.” (CBC)
There was no statement from the military, but an official at the Interior Ministry sent a text message to Bahrainis Friday night urging them to stay indoors.
As of around 8 p.m., there were approximately 50 riot police cars on the Pearl Square roundabout, a resident who lives above the square said. “We did hear gunshots fired,” the resident, who declined to be identified by name, said by telephone. (Washington Post)
At the main public hospital, Salmaniya, three people were undergoing surgery for serious head injuries, and many more were arriving with less serious wounds, witnesses said. CNN reported that four people were killed, but that could not be confirmed. Witnesses said the Salmaniya hospital was overwhelmed with wounded and that casualties were being diverted to private hospitals around the capital.
The U.S. Embassy in Manama posted a notice on its Web site Friday urging American citizens living in Bahrain to stay in their homes until further notice. It said there were “confirmed reports of violent clashes including weapons being fired between protesters and security forces in various parts of the city,” suggesting that some of the demonstrators may have been armed. (Washington Post) Bahrain’s crown prince, Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who is the son of Bahrain’s king, made an unexpected appearance on Bahrain television Friday night as the fresh round of violence gripped the capital. “I gave my message to the people, to everyone, to withdraw from the streets and calm down. We will all reach a joint point of view,” he said. (Washington Post)
Earlier, there were conflicting reports of the violence, with some witnesses saying Bahraini troops shot at the protesters with live ammunition and others saying the troops fired heavy weapons into the air as warning shots. The use of tear gas and rubber bullets was also reported. “A lot of casualties are being transported to the hospital,” said Jasim Husain, a member of the Shiite al-Wefaq party, which withdrew from the parliament Thursday to protest the government’s crackdown. (Washington Post)
Hospital officials said at least 20 people were injured, some seriously, the Associated Press reported. Ambulance sirens were heard throughout Manama. “The hospital resuscitation room was in chaos,” Dr. Ali Ebrahim, the deputy chief of staff at Salmaniya Hospital told CBC News.
The violence came after thousands of pro-government marchers rallied in Manama on Friday in support of Bahrain’s king. Those marchers, many dressed in the red and white colours of the Bahraini flag, trooped along al-Fatih Highway through a solidly pro-government part of town.
As the pro-government crowd rallied, thousands of protesters marched and chanted anti-government slogans at funerals in the predominately Shiite villages on the outskirts of Manama for those who were killed in the government crackdown. Protests used Twitter to urge people to attend the funerals. Human Rights Watch said it appeared security forces fired as the “crowd neared the roadblocks” set up on Thursday. “The victims said the scene was peaceful and that there was no warning issued before the forces opened fire using tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. They said the attack did not last long because people immediately started running away.” (CNN)
Mourners at funerals and at Friday prayers called for toppling the monarchy in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
The United States last year provided Bahrain about $20.8 million in military assistance, a substantial amount for such a small country and almost double what it received in 2009. The majority of its funds went to pay for improvements to Bahrain’s F-16 fighter fleet and to its navy’s flagship frigate, supplied by the United States in 1996.
In the past, Bahrain has sent more than 100 police to Afghanistan to help build up that country’s force. Overall U.S. counterterrorism aid to Bahrain doubled last year to almost $1.1 million. Much of that money likely went to police and military forces that are suppressing the current protests. In its annual report on foreign military aid, the State Department said the anti-terrorism assistance was used to “develop the capabilities that the Bahraini police are using in Afghanistan, and in Bahrain will contribute to other forms of counterterrorism with Bahrain.” (Washington Post)
The pro-government marchers Friday – predominately Sunni Muslim Bahrainis and the expatriates from countries such as India and Pakistan – carried pictures of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa and chanted slogans in favour of their continued rule. Land Rovers, Lexuses and Range Rovers honked their horns as they crawled by the rally, which was broadcast live on Bahrain state television.
“This is a lovely country. It’s like a dream,” said one Indian man wearing a Bahraini flag draped down his back like a cape and carrying a large photo of the king. The man, Abdul Kareem, said he works in the Interior Ministry and has lived in Bahrain for 30 years. “We love the leadership. They are providing the best life in the world, not only for the countrymen but for the expatriates,” he said. (Washington Post)
One man said demonstrators would keep up the effort. Asked if he was afraid for his life, he said, “There would be nothing more honourable than to be killed fighting for freedom for my country.” (CNN)
Earlier, the country’s most senior Shia cleric Sheikh Issa Qassem described attacks on protesters as a “massacre” and said the government had shut the door to dialogue. As he spoke at emotionally charged Friday prayers in the Duraz neighbourhood, supporters shouted “victory for Islam,” “death for Al Khalifa” and “we are your soldiers.” (BBC)
Outside Manama’s Grand Mosque, government loyalists held their own rallies. Men wearing traditional white robes arrived for prayers with Bahraini flags draped over them. “We must protect our country,” said Adnan al-Qattan, the cleric who led Friday prayers. “We are living in dangerous times.” (CBC)
In the government’s first public comment on the crackdown, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said Thursday it was necessary because the demonstrators were “polarizing the country” and pushing it to the “brink of sectarian abyss.” (CBC)
President Obama said Friday that he was “deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen,” as he condemned harsh government responses to peaceful protests. In a statement issued by the White House while he was visiting the West Coast, Obama urged the three countries “to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people.” (Washington Post) “The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur,” he said. (BBC)
The UN’s rights chief Navy Pillay condemned the use of force by governments across the region, and singled out the Bahraini authorities for targeting medical workers while they were treating protesters. “The nature and scope of the human rights violations taking place in several countries in the region in response to those who are largely demonstrating peacefully for their fundamental human rights and freedoms is alarming,” she said. (BBC)
In Britain, the Conservative-led coalition government on Friday decided to revoke a series of weapons sale licenses to Bahrain and Libya after coming under heavy criticism for striking such deals with Arab governments that are now cracking down on protesters. The “urgent” policy review came after London approved recent sales to Bahrain of 250 tear gas canisters, crowd-control ammunition and equipment for use in aircraft cannons, assault rifles and other weapons.