CAIRO — Security forces deployed across the strategic Persian Gulf island of Bahrain on Thursday after a middle-of-the-night raid on an anti-government protest camp left at least three dead and hundreds injured, according to news sources.
The reports said that heavily armed riot police stormed the encampment in Pearl Circle, the epicenter of growing popular demonstrations against Bahrain's absolute monarchy in the capital, Manama, and fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters while they slept.
Hours later, tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled through the deserted streets of Manama, a normally placid banking capital. Bahraini authorities said that they had restored calm, saying in a statement that "traffic movement is normal all over the kingdom and the roads which were closed earlier are now open."
The crackdown drew immediate condemnation from around the world as Bahrain's royal family becomes the latest Middle Eastern regime to be challenged by demonstrations demanding greater political freedoms. The protesters had been staking out Pearl Circle in emulation of the Egyptian protesters who occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square for 18 days of demonstrations that eventually overthrew the long-serving president, Hosni Mubarak.
"The Bahraini authorities have again reacted to legitimate protest by using deadly force. They must end their continuing crackdown on activists calling for reform," said Malcolm Smart, the Middle East and North Africa director for the human rights group Amnesty International.
Health officials said that three people died and at least 225 were injured amid the crackdown.
Bahrain is a tiny island, barely three times the size of the District of Columbia, but enjoys strategic importance for the United States as the site of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. It is also located between two regional heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Iran, both of which have jockeyed for influence there.
The Sunni Muslim Khalifa family has frequently faced dissent because it rules over a population whose majority are Shiites, who complain that they are excluded from top government and security posts. Of an estimated 1.3 million inhabitants, nearly half are foreign workers.