19 Feb 2011

Bahrain: protesters jubilant as forces called off

Thousands of anti-government protesters swarm into Pearl Square as Bahrain’s police and armed forces withdraw, following the rejection of King Hamad’s call for peace talks by the Shi’ite opposition.

Bahrain’s Crown Prince ordered the withdrawal of the Armed Forces from the streets this morning, after a week of unrest that has seen the death of six anti-government demonstrators.

In a statement today, the government confirmed: “His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces has ordered the withdrawal of all military from the streets of Bahrain with immediate effect”.

Shortly afterwards, riot police hastily retreated from Pearl Square, prompting thousands of protestors to flood back into their former stronghold in Manama.

“We took this square in a peaceful manner. The Khalifa henchmen, they killed my friends here,” one protester said, referring to Bahrain’s Sunni Muslim ruling family.

King Hamad’s call last night for peace talks was rejected by the main Shi’ite opposition on account of military intervention in the protests this week.

Shi’ite ex-lawmaker Ibrahim Mattar, a member of the Wefaq bloc that quit parliament on Thursday, told Reuters: “Nobody is willing to sit with officials if the military is killing people”.

“We don’t feel there is a serious will for dialogue because the military is in the streets and people are not allowed to protest.”

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa offered a national dialogue with all parties on Friday to try to end the turmoil in which six people have been killed and hundreds wounded since Monday.

Activists called for an open-ended strike from Sunday and the closure of all public and private schools on a Facebook page called the “February 14 revolution in Bahrain”.

Live Blog: Middle East revolt spreads to Bahrain

Riot police broke up a protest camp on Pearl Square, a traffic circle in Manama, on Thursday, killing four people and wounding 231. Two people were killed earlier in the week.

Soldiers in tanks and armoured vehicles later took control of the square and fired on protesters nearby on Friday. A senior medical official said more than 60 people were treated in hospital.

Bahrain's Shi'ite opposition rejects King Hamad's calls for peace talks; military withdraws (Image: Getty)

The “February 14 revolution” youth group set its own conditions for dialogue, saying troops must withdraw and protesters be allowed back into Pearl Square.

It also demanded the release of all political prisoners and word on the fate of missing people, as well as the resignations of the defence and interior ministers and the security chief.

Calls to respect human rights

The European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement released overnight she was deeply concerned about new reports on violence by the security forces.

“I urge the Bahraini authorities to respect fundamental human rights including freedom of expression and the right to assemble freely,” she said, urging all parties to use restraint.

Her calls were joined by the British Foreign Office last night which announced that a range of licences for arms exports to Bahrain were being revoked following a swift review sparked by the authorities’ violent suppression of protests.

The licences cover items which could be used for internal repression, such as tear gas, components for rifles and machine guns, ammunition and riot control equipment.

Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said there was “no evidence of British equipment being used in the unrest in Bahrain”, where reports suggest that troops have used live ammunition against thousands of marchers defying a government ban on demonstrations.

Turmoil has rocked Bahrain since demonstrators, mostly from the 70 percent Shi’ite majority, took to the streets to demand more say in the tiny Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab island.

Shi’ites feel cut out of decision-making and complain of discrimination in access to state jobs and housing.

US President Barack Obama spoke to King Hamad on Friday, condemning the violence and urging the government to show restraint and respect the rights of its people.

Who Knows Who: Bahrain's sectarian gulf

King Hamad said he had granted the crown prince all powers to “fulfil the hopes and aspirations” of all Bahrainis in the national dialogue.

Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa appealed on television for calm. “Today is the time to sit down and hold a dialogue, not to fight,” he said on Friday.

The unrest in Bahrain, a minor non-OPEC oil producer and regional banking hub, has shaken confidence in the economy.

In 1999, King Hamad introduced a constitution allowing elections for a parliament with some powers, but royals still dominate a cabinet led by the King’s uncle for 40 years.