MANAMA, Bahrain — Bahraini police and soldiers, firing live ammunition and backed by U.S.-built Apache assault helicopters, drove protesters from a key traffic square here Wednesday, then blocked wounded people from reaching hospitals, in a brazen crackdown aimed at ending a month of pro-democracy protests.
At least three people were killed and scores injured. Two members of the police force also were reported killed. The government declared a 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew.
It took troops no more than half an hour to clear Pearl Square of hundreds of protesters who'd been entrenched there since protests began in February.
First, the Apache helicopters came — six of them — at around 6:30 a.m., circling low over the square where protesters had spent the night in anticipation of an attack. Troops also took up positions on the rooftops of the surrounding buildings.
The helicopters fired tear gas at the protesters — men, women and children — many of whom were sleeping in their tents.
Then they fired live ammunition into the crowd, witnesses said.
Shortly afterward, hundreds of riot police backed by army troops in tanks and machine-gun-mounted vehicles swarmed the small roundabout in the center of the capital. Most protesters retreated, though some threw stones at the heavily armed troops.
Those who tried to resist were pushed to the ground and beaten.
President Barack Obama expressed "deep concern" and urged "maximum restraint" in phone calls to both the king of Bahrain and the king of Saudi Arabia, which two days ago dispatched troops to Bahrain, White House press secretary Jay Carney said. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Cairo criticized the crackdown.
"We think they're on the wrong track," she told the BBC. "We deplore the use of force against demonstrators, and we deplore the use of force by demonstrators. We want a peaceful resolution."
Human rights groups called on the U.S. to halt weapons sales to Bahrain, home port to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
"It appears that the government has decided to deal with protests through violent repression, a totally unsustainable position and one which sets an ominous example in a region where other governments are also facing popular calls for change," Amnesty International said in a statement.
The Bahraini government denied that live ammunition had been used, and said police moved only after they were attacked by demonstrators on a nearby highway overpass with Molotov cocktails. It said retreating protesters set fire to tents.
"The only fatalities during the operation were the deaths of two police officers; killed after being repeatedly run over by three vehicles containing protesters leaving the fringes of the scene," the government statement said. "No other injuries were recorded."
The crackdown signaled a harsh new turn in the turmoil that has wracked the Arab world since popular protests drove the president of Tunisia from power in January. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell quickly afterward, but since his resignation on Feb. 11, what seemed like an unstoppable wave of popular revolts has receded in the face of repression.
Libyan rebels appeared Wednesday to have lost the key city of Ajdabiya to forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi, whose troops were reportedly preparing to assault the rebel capital of Benghazi after a week of victories over ill-equipped and disorganized rebel forces.
A resolution to establish a no-fly zone over Libya in hopes of preventing Gadhafi from using his air force against the rebels appeared stymied before the United Nations Security Council.
It wasn't immediately clear if Wednesday's attack in Bahrain involved Saudi troops, who on Monday moved into the island nation over a causeway connecting it to the Saudi mainland as part of a force under the aegis of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a grouping of six Persian Gulf states.
The force was intended to help quell the protesters, most of whom are Shiite Muslims who complain of discrimination and lack of rights in the Sunni-ruled kingdom. More than 60 percent of the 550,000 Bahrainis are Shiites.
"As they charged at us, we shouted 'peaceful, peaceful;' but they started firing tear gas," said Ahmed Abdullah, 22, who fled the scene.
Another protester, Hayat Mohammad, said protesters were paralyzed by the tear gas. "They used a kind of tear gas that I hadn't seen before. It was black," she said. "It made people unable to move."
After fleeing Pearl Square, many demonstrators headed toward Salmaniya Hospital, the country's only public hospital. But as they approached the hospital, troops fired on the ground to disperse the crowd. No one was injured, but protesters seeking medical treatment were blocked from reaching it.
Witnesses said troops also blocked ambulances from picking up wounded protesters. At the hospital, soldiers, some wearing masks, sealed off entrances and refused to anyone to enter or leave. A tank was parked at the hospital's main gate.
"Any one of us who tries to leave is beaten up by police," said Dr. Amal al Yousef, speaking by telephone from inside the hospital. "We have received no patient today from the square. We can't help them."
Yousef said she witnessed police beating and kicking three male nurses and a man in civilian clothes for trying to leave the hospital. They were left on the ground for hours, and a paramedic crew that tried to assist them was detained.
Troops who arrived at the hospital at around 7:15 a.m. also destroyed tents that had been set up by the protesters on the hospital's lawn.
"We are terrified," Yousef said.
Makeshift first aid centers were set up in mosques, tents and other areas to treat the injured.
By 10:30 a.m., most demonstrators had gone home.
"The Apaches were shooting at everything moving. All we were doing was run. There was nothing more we could do," Mohammed said.
It was unclear whether the opposition would attempt to mount new protests.
"These atrocities cannot be condoned by any civilized nation," said Salman Khalaf, a leader of the protests. "Unarmed people were killed, and anyone who stands and watches this is a culprit to this crime."
(Faramarzi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Margaret Talev contributed to this article from Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.