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Protesters take Bahrain Square

world Updated: Feb 21, 2011 19:22 IST

Thousands of jubilant protesters surged back into the symbolic heart of Bahrain on Saturday as the government withdrew its security forces, calling for calm after days of violent crackdowns.

It was a remarkable turn after a week of protests that had shifted by the hour between joy and fear, euphoric surges of people power followed by bloody military crackdowns, as the monarchy struggled to calibrate a response to an uprising whose counterparts have toppled other governments in the region. The shift in this tiny Persian Gulf nation, a strategic American ally, was at least a temporary victory for the Shiite protesters, who had rejected a call to negotiate from Bahrain's Sunni monarch until the authorities pulled the military off the streets.

But the events here were being watched with trepidation in neighboring Saudi Arabia, an adjacent Sunni monarchy with a restive Shiite population, and rippling across the region, where an extraordinary few weeks of anti-government protests have ricocheted from northwest Africa to the Middle East.

In Bahrain, the day started out with a lull, as both sides appeared to have been rattled by the violence of the past week, in which at least seven people were killed.

The leaders of the major opposition parties called off the protests for Saturday, telling the public to stay home in an effort to lower the temperature. But in what appeared to be a measure of who controls the movement now, the people ignored their ostensible leaders. Marchers set out from villages and the city center and by midday converged on Pearl Square.

The police met them with tear gas and rubber bullets. Young men collapsed in the road. The police fired again. Then the government blinked, perhaps sensing that the only way to calm a spiral of violence that claimed more lives with each passing day was to cede the square to the protesters.