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14 Aug, 2013 09:43

Anti-government protests rock Bahrain amidst tight security

Police have used tear gas and birdshot to contain long-planned protests in the Gulf State of Bahrain. The country’s Shi’ite majority is demanding a greater say in the political decisions of the Sunni-ruled country.

The long-planned protests mark two-and-a-half years since the unsuccessful uprising in the oil-rich state during which protesters called for the abdication of King Hamad, who has been in power since 1999. 

Despite a ban on public demonstrations, throngs walked through capital Manama shouting "Democracy! Democracy!", as police erected barriers and checkpoints through many of the main streets.

قوات المرتزقة التابعة للنظام الخليفي تغرق شارع البديع بالغازات السامة !! #تمرد_البحرينpic.twitter.com/jvU5amRFt7

— Sajjad #FreeSafy (@ilsayed) August 14, 2013

In defiance government threats to use force against what they claim to be foreign-backed "riots" many in the villages outside Manama protested by organizing sit-ins outside their houses.

Masses sit -in near homes in all areas of #Bahrain@feb14media@hrw@amnesty@yourAnonNewspic.twitter.com/NSE4GzPopL

— yousif omran jassim (@yousifomranjass) August 14, 2013

#Bahrain: Security forces suppressed citizens sitting near their homes in the village of Aldaih pic.twitter.com/ceE6L1ipij

— Human Rights Bahrain (@byshr) August 14, 2013

In the village of Shakoora about 300 demonstrators clashed with a police cordon over a specially-built barbed wire fence, penning them in.

In other Shi'ite settlements, the protests remained peaceful, and no casualties have been reported throughout the day.

According to the main opposition group, around 60 rallies were held in 40 locations to push the Sunni Muslim ruling family for more democracy in the Shi'ite-majority nation of 1.25 million people.

Security forces turned up in the al-Seef district of Manama after activists used Twitter to call for demonstrators to gather there, in defiance of a strict ban on protests in the capital.

The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said at least 10 people had suffered teargas inhalation or were wounded by birdshot. A spokesman for the main opposition Al Wefaq Society said two people were in a serious condition.

"Despite the campaign of intimidation and surrounding villages with barbed wire, thousands of people turned up for the protests," Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda, of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, told Reuters.

#BCHR 10 arrests including women/children, 10's of injuries frm pellets/tear gas, 10s of areas attacked by security forces #Bahrain#Aug14

— S.Yousif Almuhafda (@SAIDYOUSIF) August 14, 2013

The Interior Ministry said that an Asian worker had been injured by a firebomb while trying to open a road blocked by protesters in a village south of Manama. It described the use of firebombs and road blocks as "terrorism," for which new laws passed this month introduce tough penalties, including depriving perpetrators of Bahraini citizenship.

Police also arrested a driver and other occupants of her car, saying she had tried to run over a policeman at a road block.

Unlike in Egypt, where protesters against the recently ousted Muslim Brotherhood government were backed by the military, Bahrain's security forces remain loyal to the government.

Authorities warned they would "forcefully confront'' any large demonstrations. Concrete barriers lined major streets in the capital, Manama, and security checkpoints surrounded by barbed wire guarded roads leading to the city from majority Shiite neighborhoods.

"Based on what we are following in the field, the government violence against protesters is inevitable,'' a spokesman for the group organizing the rallies, Hussain Yousif, told AP. "But we need to go ahead and show the world and the government that the Bahraini people have the right to express their political demands,''  he added.

#المالكية جانب من إفتراش الأطفال الأراضي أمام منازلهم بكل سلمية مُعلنين تمرّدهم على الظلم والطغيان #تمرد_البحرينpic.twitter.com/InqKgDxrQv

— Feb14Media Network (@Feb14Media) August 14, 2013

While protesters insist they'll remain peaceful and defiant, there have been attacks in recent weeks around Bahrain, including some from bombs made with natural gas canisters.

RT @SAIDYOUSIF: #bahrain protest in aldair #aug14pic.twitter.com/3eqdcC6e6l

— Maryam Alkhawaja (@MARYAMALKHAWAJA) August 14, 2013

Citing the fear of violence, the US temporarily closed its embassy in Bahrain on Wednesday after activists called on people to meet nearby. The kingdom is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet, and is the Pentagon's main base to counter Iran's expanding military presence in the Gulf and protect oil shipping lanes through the Gulf of Hormuz.

The protests have been organized by the Tamarod Bahrain campaign, which features several opposition groups and has adopted the name of Egypt's Tamarod movement. They are expected to stage nonviolent protests in nine areas of the country, with the largest expected in Manama. Wednesday coincides with the 42nd anniversary of Bahrain's independence from Britain. It also marks 2 1/2 years since the current wave of unrest started.

Bahraini protestors flashing "V" sign for victory, stand behind barbed wire placed by riot police during demonstration against the ruling regime in the village of Shakhora, west of Manama, on August 14, 2013 (AFP Photo / Mohammed Al-Shaikh)

"The government will forcefully confront the suspicious calls to violate law and order and those who stand behind them through decisive measures,'' Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa told the official Bahrain News Agency on Monday.

Meanwhile, Bahrain's largest opposition group, the Islamist al Wefaq Society, said it was not planning to join the protesters, but made it clear it supported the right to hold peaceful demonstrations.

RT correspondent Lucy Kafanov says that the Bahrain government has dealt with all protests firmly in the country, since the beginning of the Arab Spring. "Bahrain has been rocked by political unrest since 2011. For the past two years the majority Shiite opposition has been pushing for democratic reforms, but those demands have been met with an iron fist," Kafanov said.

Riot police detain a protester during clashes in the village of Shakhoora, west of Manama, August 14, 2013 (Reuters / Hamad I Mohammed)

The opposition is demanding a constitutional monarchy with a government chosen from within a democratically elected parliament. It claims there is discrimination against majority Shiites in areas such as employment and public services. The government has denied any discrimination.

"There have been lots of violations in Bahrain, but unfortunately there's rarely anything in the Western media regarding all the violations. Torture is a daily act," Jalal Fairooz, former opposition MP from the Wefaq Party, told RT.

"Over the past week three major human groups, including Amnesty International, have issued a very strong urging for the UK government and other foreign governments to stop supporting the dictator and try to enforce respect of human rights,” Fairooz said. “But unfortunately the money and petrodollars talk louder than principles in the West.”

Riot police look on as Bahraini protestors shout anti-regime slogans and wave the national flag as they stand behind barbed wire placed by riot police during demonstration against the ruling regime in the village of Shakhora, west of Manama, on August 14, 2013 (AFP Photo / Mohammed Al-Shaikh)

While there is no clear epicenter of revolt in Bahrain's uprising history, like Egypt's Tahrir Square, the capital's Pearl Square was cleared by police raids and sealed off from the public in the early weeks of the unrest. The organizers of the nationwide protests have called instead on Bahrain residents to flood the streets. The Tamarod campaign leaders have urged workers to join in a general strike and for shop owners to close their businesses. The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry has called on workers and business owners to ignore the protests.

Clashes have calmed down in recent months after the ruling family introduced some reforms, including giving the elected parliament more oversight powers and promising deeper investigations into alleged abuses by security forces. Many Shiites have dismissed the reforms as window dressing, however, saying that the monarchy is still in control of all key decision-making.

A Bahraini riot policeman ( L ) fires bird shot toward anti-government protestors during demonstration against the ruling regime in the village of Shakhora, west of Manama, on August 14, 2013 (AFP Photo / Mohammed Al-Shaikh)

Bahrain's parliament has passed strict new laws to curb opposition activists, including banning protests in the capital and giving authorities the right to remove citizenship from those convicted of violence.

Courts also have jailed prominent opposition figures and others, including some with alleged links to Iranian-backed groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.  Bahrain and other Gulf states claim that Iran, a majority Shiite country, has a hand in the protests. Iran denies the claim.

Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa office, said Bahrain should allow the protests to take place.

"The fact that some protesters perpetrate acts of violence in some demonstrations does not justify a blanket ban on demonstrations and protests in the capital city,'' Stork said. "Bahrain's total ban on protests clearly violates the right of citizens and residents to come together to raise political demands peacefully.''