Ashton urges kingdom to permit protests


BAHRAIN:EU FOREIGN policy chief Catherine Ashton called on the Bahraini authorities to respect the right to peaceful protest as she prepared for a visit next week to Egypt.

With a wave of popular unrest in the Arab world now spreading to Libya and further afield, diplomats say EU leaders will have to review all aspects of their policies towards a swathe of undemocratic regimes in north Africa and the Middle East.

The worst violence for decades in Bahrain left three dead and more than 200 wounded as troops took control of Manama yesterday. After riot police stormed an anti-government protest camp at dawn, Ms Ashton’s spokeswoman said she was very concerned.

“The high representative strongly deplores the loss of life and violence and calls for calm and restraint in this situation,” the spokeswoman told reporters in Brussels. “She also calls on the Bahraini authorities to fully respect and protect the fundamental rights of their citizens, including the right to assemble peacefully. The peaceful expression of people’s concerns should be met through dialogue.”

Baroness Ashton also called for restraint in Yemen, where protests against the 30-year rule of president Ali Abdullah Saleh have left three people dead. “Genuine, comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue is the only way forward to make progress on political, economic and social reforms.”

For decades, EU governments have adopted an essentially tolerant attitude to autocratic strongmen in the southern Mediterranean and they were caught off guard by the sudden demise of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia.

Baroness Ashton is known to be seeking at least €2.5 billion in additional funding to support reforms in Tunisia and Egypt with the assistance of the European Investment Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Foreign ministers will take stock of the developments at a special dinner meeting on Sunday night in Brussels before their regular gathering on Monday. Baroness Ashton will leave for Cairo on Monday night and spend Tuesday in Egypt, now under military rule after the departure of former president Hosni Mubarak.

Her spokeswoman said she would meet political activists as well as civic society and youth leaders. She was unable to say whether she would meet leading Mohamed ElBaredei or members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the well-organised Islamist group which is viewed with suspicion in much of the West.