Bahrain expels protesters from Pearl Roundabout

Bahrain's clearing of the main protest site in its capital city escalates the conflict between the Sunni ruling family and the majority Shiite protesters.

14 February Media Committee/AP
This image from a citizen journalism web site in Bahrain, shows smoke and flames after clashes, between protesters and security forces in Manama's Pearl Square Roundabout on Wednesday, March 16. Soldiers and riot police used tear gas and armored vehicles to drive out hundreds of antigovernment protesters occupying the landmark square in Bahrain's capital, a day after emergency rule was imposed in the violence-wracked Gulf kingdom.

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Security forces in Bahrain’s capital early Wednesday forcefully drove out hundreds of protesters from the Pearl Roundabout, the symbolic center of the month-long uprising, escalating the conflict between majority Shiite protesters and the Sunni ruling family and sharply reducing the chances of political reconciliation.

The move came a day after Bahrain’s King Hamad declared a state of emergency and two days after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations sent troops into fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Bahrain to help the kingdom’s security forces confront protesters, a development that deeply angered opposition groups. It is unclear whether the foreign troops participated in the attacks on protesters Wednesday morning.

The last time that Bahrain forcibly cleared the Pearl Roundabout in February, killing seven people in the process, the use of force only mobilized the protesters, who later retook the square. Wednesday’s crackdown is likely to only harden their resolve. The uprising began with calls for a more representative constitutional monarchy, other political reforms, and equal rights for Shiites, who make up about 70 percent of the population and complain of strong discrimination. But as the government has cracked down, demands have turned to dethroning the ruling family.

The Associated Press reports that at least two protesters and two policemen were reported killed when soldiers and riot police stormed the roundabout at dawn, using tear gas and armored vehicles. The New York Times reports that the troops also used tanks, helicopters, and jeeps mounted with machine guns to disperse the protesters. Witnesses said the forces lit protesters' tents on fire; they also reported that pillars of black smoke were rising from the square. Mobile phones in the area were jammed, according to the AP.

CNN reports that security forces also stormed the main hospital. Doctors and nurses at Salmaniya Medical Complex told CNN that security forces cordoned off the hospital and beat personnel inside the hospital. Doctors were hiding from the forces, unable to do their work. The same scenario was reported at a private hospital, reports CNN. The Washington Post reported that forces were preventing any new patients from entering the hospitals.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Bahrain’s main opposition groups released a statement condemning the regime’s attempt to solve a political problem by using military force. Abdul Khalil, a senior member of the leading Shiite opposition bloc Al Wafaq, said recent developments dashed any hopes of dialogue.

"We can't start dialogue with violence everywhere in the country," Mr. Khalil said to the Journal. "We don't need more guns. Security forces from Gulf countries will put oil on the fire."

The Washington Post reports that there were fewer protesters than usual in the Pearl Roundabout when it was attacked Wednesday morning because many had returned home to their villages to protect them against attacks by pro-government vigilantes and security forces. The Journal reports that clashes or attacks occurred in six villages, including the Shiite town of Sitra, when witnesses said pro-government mobs went on a rampage with knives, swords, and guns.

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