Friday, February 18, 2011

Bahrain king offers dialogue to resolve crisis

MANAMA — Bahrain's king has offered a national dialogue "with all parties" in an effort to resolve a crisis that has killed four people and wounded hundreds, rocking the island, a key regional ally of the United States.

More than 60 people were in hospital on Saturday undergoing treatment for wounds sustained when Bahraini security forces fired on protesters as they headed to Pearl Square on Friday.

The shootings occurred on a day of mass mourning when Shi'ites buried the four people killed a day earlier in the police raid on the Pearl Square traffic circle.

In response to protests against his government that have drawn thousands of people on to the streets, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced late on Friday the crown price had been granted "all the powers to fulfill the hopes and aspirations of all gracious citizens from all sections" in the national dialogue.

US President Barack Obama spoke with the king on Friday evening, condemning the violence and urging the government to show restraint. Obama said the stability of Bahrain, home to the US Middle East fleet, depended upon respect for the rights of its people, according to the White House.

The unrest has presented the United States with a now familiar dilemma in the region. It is torn between its desire for stability in a long-standing Arab ally and a need to uphold its own principles about the right of people to demonstrate for democratic change.

The crown prince of the non-OPEC minor oil producer, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, appealed for calm on TV.

"Today is the time to sit down and hold a dialogue, not to fight," he said.

The unrest in the regional banking hub has shaken foreign confidence in the economy.

Protesters feel shut out 

In 1999, King Hamad enacted a constitution allowing elections for a parliament with some powers, but royals still dominate a cabinet led by the king's uncle -- premier for 40 years.

Bahrain's Shi'ite Muslims account for about 70 percent of the population which is governed by the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty. Shi'ites feel cut out of decision-making, as well as from jobs in the army and security forces.

Both the US and Saudi Arabia see Bahrain as a bulwark against Shi'ite Iran. Saudi Arabia especially fears unrest spreading to its own Shi'ite community, a minority concentrated in the eastern oil-producing area of the world's biggest crude exporter.

Ali Ibrahim, deputy chief of medical staff at Salmaniya hospital, said 66 wounded had been admitted from the clash and that four were in a critical condition.

About 1,000 people gathered outside one hospital, some spilling into the corridors as casualties were brought in, including one with a bloody sheet over his head. Some men wept.

Fakhri Abdullah Rashed said he had seen soldiers shooting at protesters in Pearl Square. "I saw people shot in several parts of their body. It was live bullets," the protester added.

Jalal Firooz, an MP for Wefaq, the main Shi'ite bloc whose 17 members resigned from the 40-seat assembly on Thursday, said demonstrators had been holding a memorial for a protester killed earlier this week when riot police fired tear gas at them. Police had no comment.

The crowd then made for Pearl Square, where army troops opened fire, Firooz said.

Four people were killed and 231 wounded when riot police raided the protest camp in the early hours of Thursday.

Soldiers in tanks and armored vehicles later took control of the square, which the mainly Shi'ite protesters had hoped to use as a base like Cairo's Tahrir Square, the heart of protests that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11.

Several thousand mourners turned out on Friday to bury those killed in what Bahrain's top Shi'ite cleric called a "massacre" ordered by the island's Sunni ruling family to crush protests. — Reuters

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