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Protesters back, talks expected

world Updated: Feb 20, 2011 18:58 IST

Reuters
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Thousands of Bahraini protesters set up a tent city in a Manama square that has come to symbolise their cause, some calling on Sunday for immediate political change and others hoping for talks to resolve the crisis.

Many are starting to call Pearl Square "Martyrs' Circle", in memory of the four people killed in Thursday's night-time raid by riot police to clear the area.

Protesters swept back in late on Saturday after Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa ordered troops and armoured vehicles to withdraw. He said he would lead a national dialogue after days of unrest that left six dead.

"We will not sit down with murderers. No to dialogue!" one woman shouted, as people handed out bread, fruit and juice.

Along with a medical centre and lost-and-found department, tents were being organised and portable toilets brought in.

"I came here to prove we are united," said May Hadi, a 27-year-old Sunni Muslim woman who said she was a treasury dealer. "Bahrain television is trying to show we are divided. We are not. They are trying to prove it is a Shi'ite revolution. We are asking for freedom in this country."

Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, whose members dominate a cabinet led by the king's uncle, who has been premier for 40 years.

Shi'ite Muslims account for about 70 percent of the population but feel they have no part in decision-making and face discrimination over state jobs and housing. The seven-year-old parliament acts as a safety valve and the rulers have used their oil wealth to defuse Shi'ite frustrations.

The opposition was expected to put its demands to the crown prince on Sunday, repeating demands for a constitutional monarchy and a directly elected government.

It also wants the withdrawal of security forces, the release of political prisoners and talks on a new constitution, an opposition source, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

"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.

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.

"The crown prince should take leadership. He should not wait too long to give these small concessions. If he does not resolve the small concession, the people will doubt whether he can handle the bigger concessions," said Ebrahim Sharif, secretary general of the secular leftist Waad party.

AVOIDING SECTARIANISM

Normal life appeared to be returning to Manama, with cars moving smoothly along open roads and people walking into shops.

But it was unclear whether the season-opening Formula One Grand Prix, scheduled for March. 13, will go ahead, said the sport's commercial chief Bernie Ecclestone, adding that the crown prince will make a decision on the race.

"He will decide whether it's safe for us to be there," Ecclestone told the BBC. "I've no idea. I'm not there, so I don't know."

On Saturday, the crown prince suggested the unrest was the result of a lack of action in response to Shi'ite demands. "We want to correct this situation and prevent its repetition," he told Al Arabiya television.

"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, aired late on Saturday.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil producer which fears unrest among its Shi'ite 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.

Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United States, regard Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, as a bulwark against Shi'ite power Iran across the Gulf.

Bahrain's Interior Ministry said security officers had found weapons and flags of the Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah group, which is backed by Iran, after they cleared Pearl Square.

But protesters 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 Shi'ites, just Bahraini unity."