Bahrain protesters occupy Pearl Square; Libya, Yemen seethe

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 19, 2011 

MANAMA, Bahrain — Saturday was poised to be the most decisive day of the nearly week-long confrontation here between enraged protesters calling for major reforms and armed government security forces who repeatedly had shot at them.

And it was — but for reasons no one expected.

What some feared could be the most violent day of clashes in this strategic ally of America turned into a major victory for the protesters — at least for now.

Just before 1 p.m. the Bahraini Army, which had been blocking protesters from their demonstration site, at times with gunfire and tear gas, pulled their tanks away, replaced by riot police.

More than two hours later, at 3:25 p.m., the first line of riot police blocking the protesters access to the site of demonstrations, Pearl Square, broke. At one barricade point, a police officer donning a bulletproof shield and a weapon pulled out his video camera and taped the protesters demanding that he let them go into the square. Another waved, then hundreds of officers alongside them got into SUVs and drove off. In all, more than 60 police SUVs formed a line away from the protest site.

The crowd cheered, then ran to the square and retook the spot they hope will be Bahrain's version of Egypt's Tahrir Square, a place where thousands demand major government reforms, and win.

The relative calm Saturday in Bahrain contrasted with Libya, where the regime of long-time leader Moammar Gadhafi reportedly was using deadly force to try to suppress protests demanding an end to his rule.

Fathi, a resident of Benghazi, Libya's second city, who asked that his last name not be cited, said by telephone that sounds of gunfire could be heard from the city center, where thousands of protesters remained in the cold rain Saturday despite attacks by security forces. More troops were arriving by plane, he said.

"I don't know how it's going to end," said Fathi, The government cut off LIbya's Internet connections early Saturday. "There are a lot of more deaths than they (the media) are saying," he said.

At least 84 people have died in three days of protests in Libya, Human Rights Watch said, based on telephone interviews with witnesses and hospital staff.

Mass protests continued elsewhere across the Middle East as well.

In Sana'a, Yemen's capital, one person was killed and several injured in ongoing clashes as thousands of protesters marched. In Iraq, several thousand people marched in the city of Sulaimaniyah to protest the deaths of two protesters days earlier. And in Algiers, the capital of Algeria, police broke up a rally by thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators.

In Bahrain, a large Persian Gulf island nation that's home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, protesters tore down a barbed wire fence at Pearl Square and vowed that this time, they would not leave, no matter how many times the police and Army shot at them. Thousands poured into the square.

"We have taken it [Pearl Square] by peaceful measures," said Ahmed al Abasi through screams and tears. "The Khalifa family [Bahrain's royal family] sent people to kill us. They killed my friends."

The crisis began earlier in Manama with a protest for democratic reforms. It was inspired by the popular revolts that drove out the aging despotic rulers of Egypt and Tunisia, which are fueling anti-regime movements across the volatile region.

Whether the sight of cheering, crying and grateful Bahraini protesters pouring into Pearl Square was the beginning of negotiations between the monarchy and opposition groups or only a pause between clashes remained unclear. Even as they chanted "we are victorious," some protesters wondered whether they were being set up for an ambush by a military plotting to return.

"Even if the Army comes back, let them come back. And then the world would see what savages they are," said a woman who wanted to be identified only as Umm Mohammed, 32, a teacher.

Nearby, another woman covered in black felt the situation was more ominous: "I think there is something bad here. The army may come back. But we are free now," said Waed Abdel Aziz, 19, a university student.

Regardless, the sight of forces relinquishing control of the heavily fought-over square gave them a sense of confidence not seen since the protests began. They waved flags even as they set up tents to spend the night. They blasted chants from loudspeakers as they collected rubber bullets to prove that the army fired on them the last time they were here. They cleaned up bags of onions left for protesters to use if they were struck by tear gas to mitigate the impact. And they set up an on-scene medical hospital for another attack.

"We will make a temporary medical center here," said Dr. Abdul Khaliq Oraibi, as a gurney filled with dressing, needles and saline wheeled by him. "I don't trust these people. They could come back anytime," he said, referring to the Army.

The protests began as a call for a constitutional monarchy to replace this nation's absolute monarchy. But throughout the week, amid horror and shock over the violent repression, the protesters' demands grew more varied. Some called for the overthrow of the regime; some said the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, must resign; still others said the ministers of defense and interior also must leave.

At the height of tensions, the protesters even chanted "Death to Hamad," referring to King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

The king "might want to give the people something small to calm them down" like constitutional reforms or the resignation of some government officials, said Salwa Abdullah, 43, who works at the Ministry of Health. "But I don't think that will work. We will never believe them. They promised us this ten years ago."

The opposition had said it would not consider an offer by the king for national dialogue until the military left the streets. As soon as troops left Pearl Square, Bahraini officials suggested that talks had begun with some opposition groups, including Shiite leaders in this Sunni-led country.

The call for dialogue came after a dramatic confrontation between the army and the protesters for control of the square a day earlier. The army fired live ammunition and tear gas, injuring at least 66 people. In all, five people have been killed and hundreds wounded.

"I stress, once more, that our duty is to preserve security and stability, to ensure that there is no discord and that the situation does not worsen," Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, deputy military commander, said in a statement. "Join us to calm the situation, so that we can announce a day of mourning for our lost sons.

The reopening of the square was "a milestone" said Ebrahim Sharif, 43, who leads Waad, one of the main opposition groups. Constitutional reforms and the resignation of top government leaders must come next, he said.

"The government has to show that they are serious, that they are not doing this just for the international community," Sharif said.

(Warren P. Strobel contributed from Washington.)

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