Riot police storm a protest camp in central Bahrain killing five people and leaving hundreds wounded as unrest continues. A witness tells Channel 4 News the authorities wanted protesters to “pay”.
Riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets stormed a protest camp in the Bahrain‘s Pearl Square in the capital Manama in the early hours of Thursday morning, in an effort to disperse demonstrators camped out for three days.
At least five people have been killed in the violence, although a human rights group has said the number is likely to be much higher. Hundreds more have been wounded. Pictures emerged online showing hospital wards littered with injured protesters. A parliamentarian said many were in a critical condition.
The Bahrain health minister confirmed the three deaths and said that 231 people were injured in the police operation.
More than 50 armoured vehicles rumbled through the capital towards Pearl Square where the remains of the protest camp could be seen. Abandoned tents, blankets and rubbish dotted the area, and the smell of teargas wafted through the air.
The square and roundabout had become the focus of Bahrain protests that demonstrators sought to turn into the base of an uprising like that at Cairo’s Tahrir Square which led to the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Head of Foreign Relations Office at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, Maryam Alkhawaja, told Channel 4 News that in the aftermath she witnessed two men dying in hospital.
“I documented the deaths of two men”, she said. “I also saw many, many wounded people including several women and children.”
Ms Alkhawaja was sleeping in the square when the police arrived in the earlier hours of Thursday morning.
“Around 3am we were woken by a young boy who said the riot police were coming. Within minutes the police overtook the bridge and surrounding areas and just started shooting.
“People were chanting ‘peaceful, peaceful’.
“We were chased and managed to get out. As I was leaving people shouting that there were woman and children still in their tents. Some people went back to help the others, and I think it was probably them who were wounded in the attack.”
She added: “This was a blatant attack from the government to make the protesters pay.”
Later at a hospital in the capital Ms Alkhawaja photographed two paramedics who had also been injured in the violence, one with a broken arm. She said there had also been unconfirmed reports of people with their hands bound being beaten by police.
“In the hospital people were screaming,” she said. “There was a man shouting, ‘Is this what the King promised, giving us more dead?”
According to witnesses hundreds of police appeared at the camp without warning.
“There was no single warning. It was like attacking an enemy. People were sleeping peacefully,” one demonstrator said, declining to be named.
In Britain the Downing Street said there was deep concern over the violence and urged the authorities to show “restraint”.
“Clearly, we are deeply concerned by the events in Bahrain last night and by the level of violence,” David Cameron’s spokesman said. “We would urge all sides to avoid violence and urge the police to exercise restraint.
“We think it is essential that Bahrain now takes further steps on reform that meets the aspirations of its people for greater political and social freedoms.”
The Pentagon called Bahrain an important partner on Thursday but also urged restraint.
“As a long-time ally and home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is an important partner and the department is closely watching developments there,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Dave Lapan said.
“We also call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.”
Thousands of overwhelmingly Shi’ite protesters, emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to Bahrain’s streets this week demanding more say in the Gulf Arab kingdom where a Sunni Muslim family rules over a majority Shi’ite population.
“This is real terrorism,” said Abdul Jalil Khalil, a parliamentarian from the main Shi’ite opposition Wefaq bloc. “Whoever took the decision to attack the protest was aiming to kill.”
Including last night’s deaths overnight, at least four have died since protests flared up this week.
Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said on Twitter that security forces had “cleared Pearl roundabout” of demonstrators, and that a section of a main road was temporarily blocked.
One protester said he had driven away two people who had been wounded by rubber bullets.
A teenager shepherded a sobbing woman into a car, saying she had been separated from her 2-year-old daughter in the chaos. At a main hospital, about 200 people gathered to mourn and protest.
“I was there… The men were running away, but the women and kids could not run as easily, some are still inside (the square),” said Ibrahim Mattar, a parliamentarian from Wefaq, which has walked out of parliament and was due to meet on Thursday to decide a response.
The religious divide that separates Bahrain’s ruling family from most of its subjects has led to sporadic unrest since the 1990s, and Bahrain’s stability is being closely watched as protest movements blow through North Africa and the Middle East.
It is considered the state most vulnerable to popular unrest in a Gulf Arab region where, in an unwritten pact, rulers have traded a share of their oil wealth for political submission.
Regional power Saudi Arabia, and the United States – which bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain – both view the ruling Khalifa family as a bulwark against Shi’ite Iran.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa introduced a new constitution giving Bahrainis more political rights a decade ago, but the opposition says he has not gone far enough to introduce democracy. Most of the cabinet are still members of his family.
The King expressed condolences to relatives of the two dead men killed on Monday and Tuesday and said a committee would investigate. His government says it has detained people suspected of blame for the deaths.
After the bloodshed in Bahrain, hundreds of Yemenis clashed again on the other side of the Arabian peninsula, and in North Africa there were reports of new unrest in Libya on Wednesday.
In Libya pro-government supporters reportedly gathered in the capital, Tripoli, to counteract a call by online activists for a “day of rage” inspired by the events in Tunisia and Egypt.
Human Rights Watch said Libyan authorities had detained 14 activists, writers and protesters who had been preparing the anti-government protests, and there were unconfirmed reports of two people killed in an eastern city.
In a country where public dissent is rarely tolerated, plans for the protests were being circulated by anonymous activists on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter but telephone lines to some parts of the country were out of order.
Libya has been tightly controlled for over 40 years by Muammar Gaddafi – who is now Africa’s longest-serving leader – but the oil exporter has felt the ripples from the overthrow of long-standing leaders in its neighbours in the Middle East.
Witnesses and local media reported that several hundred people clashed with police and Gaddafi supporters on Tuesday night in the city of Benghazi where two people were killed.
Late on Wednesday evening, it was impossible to contact witnesses in Benghazi because telephone connections to the city appeared to be out of order.