Bahrain capital calm before talks

 

Thousands of anti-government protesters camped overnight in a Manama square that has come to symbolise their cause, as calm returned ahead of talks today between the opposition and the Bahraini crown prince.

The Gulf state's opposition is expected to put demands to Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who is leading a national dialogue after days of unrest that left six dead.

On orders from the crown prince, troops and armoured vehicles had withdrawn from the square, which they took over on Thursday after riot police staged a night-time attack on a sit-in by protesters, killing four people and wounding 231.

Protesters swarmed back into Pearl Square yesterday as riot police hurriedly withdrew. Some protesters stayed overnight in tents while others left for the night. People were streaming back towards the square early today. Normal life appeared to be returning to the city, with cars moving smoothly along open roads and people walking into shops.

"All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table," Crown Prince Salman told CNN, adding the king had appointed him to lead talks and build trust with all sides.

"I think there is a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, and on that note I would like to extend my condolences to all of the families who lost loved ones and all of those who have been injured. We are terribly sorry and this is a terrible tragedy for our nation," he said.

Inspired by popular revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, many had hoped that Pearl Square would become a symbol of resistance just as Cairo's Tahrir Square became a focal point of people power.

The crown prince said protesters would "absolutely" be allowed to stay in the square.

In addition to withdrawal of security forces, the main opposition demands are the release of political prisoners, resignation of the government and talks on a new constitution, said an opposition source.

Ibrahim Mattar, a former parliamentarian from the Shia party Wefaq, had said earlier that a main opposition demand was government acceptance of the idea of turning Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy.

The demands likely will be put today to Crown Prince Salman, seen as a reformist, the opposition source said. The government said dialogue had already begun.

The crown prince suggested yesterday the unrest was the result of a lack of action on demands by Shias, who make up 70 per cent of the population of the small Gulf Arab kingdom which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim family. He told Al Arabiya television there might be a feeling that some basic demands had not been met. "We want to correct this situation and prevent its repetition."

Bahrain's Shias have long complained of unfair treatment in access to state jobs and housing in the kingdom, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.

"The protesters in Pearl Roundabout represent a very significant proportion of our society and our political belief," the crown prince told CNN.

"But there are other forces at work here. This is not Egypt and this is not Tunisia. And what we don't want to do, like in Northern Ireland, is to descend into militia warfare or sectarianism," he said in the interview.

Protesters in Bahrain have tried to avoid actions that would give them a sectarian image, waving the national red-and-white Bahraini flag and chanting slogans such as: "There are no Sunnis or Shiss, just Bahraini unity."

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which fears unrest may spread to its Shia minority, said it was following developments in Bahrain with interest and hoped for the return of peace and stability, the official news agency SPA reported.

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands with all its power behind the state and the people of Bahrain," SPA quoted the official as saying, adding that Saudi Arabia rejects any foreign interference in Bahrain's affairs.

Reuters