Bahrain riot police storm protest camp

Growing unrest: 5 killed as cops open fire, tear gas and lob grenades at sleeping demonstrators

Gearing up: Bahraini army tanks take position near Pearl Square in Manama on Thursday. AFP

At least five people died, some of them reportedly killed in their sleep with scores of shotgun pellets to the face and chest, according to a witness and three doctors who received the dead and at least 200 wounded at a hospital here.

New anger

The abrupt crackdown on what had been a carnival-like protest injected a new anger into demonstrations calling on King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to enact reforms.

“Death to Khalifa, death to Khalifa,” hundreds of protesters chanted on Thursday outside a hospital as women ran screaming through wards and corridors seeking lost children.
“They made the people feel safe,” said a nurse, Fatima Ali, referring to what had initially seemed to be official tolerance of the huge protest in Pearl Square, emulating an uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. “Then they killed them.”

Men, women and young children ran screaming, choking and collapsing as riot police ringed the square.

The square was filled with the crack of tear gas canisters and the wail of ambulances rushing people to the hospital. Teams of plainclothes police officers carrying shotguns swarmed through the area.

In the hospital morgue, one body lay next to a tray with 200 shotgun pellets that had been dug from it. Doctors said paramedics who rushed to the square in ambulances after the convulsion of violence were beaten by police.

Some of the people admitted to the hospital with injuries had been handcuffed with thick plastic restraints, made to lie down, then beaten, the doctors said.

A witness said he had seen two people shot dead as they slept. Other injuries were caused by rubber bullets, batons and beatings. “There was a fog of war,” said Mohammed Ibrahim as he took refuge in a nearby gas station.

Diplomatic challenge

The unrest posed another diplomatic challenge to the US as it struggles with how to respond to largely peaceful movements against entrenched rulers. Bahrain has long been a strategically important American ally, hosting the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

On Thursday, television images showed a long convoy of armoured military vehicles rolling into position in Manama. News reports quoted a military spokesman as saying the deployment was to defend people and property.

The Interior Ministry said the army would take all necessary steps to ensure security and it urged people to avoid the centre of Manama.

In Pearl Square, riot police officers backed by scores of SUVs with flashing blue lights could be seen on Thursday picking their way through the deserted remnants and debris of the protesters’ tent camp.

Only hours before Thursday’s crackdown, the square had been transformed from a symbol of the nation—anchored by a towering monument to its pearl-diving history—into a symbol of the fight for democracy and social justice that has been rocking autocratic governments all across the Middle East.

Tens of thousands of people had poured into the square during the day, setting up tents, giving rousing speeches and pressing their demands for a constitutional democracy.

By 11 pm on Wednesday, the square had started to quiet down. Young men sat smoking water pipes, while young children slept on blankets or in tents.

At 2:45 am on Thursday, the camp was quiet, those awake still reflecting on the remarkable events of the day. And then, police vehicles began to appear, encircling the square. At first there were four vehicles, then dozens and then hundreds.

Wearing white crash helmets, the police rushed to the square.

“Everybody was sleeping, they came from upside and down,” said Zeinab Ali, 22, as she and a group of women huddled, crying and angry, in small nearby market.

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