Mainly Shiite Muslim protesters in Bahrain marked the first anniversary of their anti-government rallies by marching toward the former Pearl Roundabout, the focus of last year’s demonstrations.
Riot police fired tear gas at the protesters heading to the location, where the roundabout has been demolished and turned into an intersection. Dense black smoke rose in the distance as demonstrators burned tires in Shiite villages. Authorities arrested at least 25 people, including nine women, who were on their way to the roundabout site, Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said by phone.
“They are storming houses suspected of harboring demonstrators, using tear gas, closing roads and arresting people,” al-Maskati said.
Protests led by Bahrain’s Shiite majority broke out a year ago demanding democracy and equal rights from the Sunni monarchy, leading to a crackdown by security forces in which troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf countries were called in.
The Interior Ministry said in a Twitter posting that “rioters” were arrested for blocking traffic on a major highway and would face prosecution.
The U.S. urged the government and people of Bahrain to work together and refrain from violence. The Obama administration supports the government’s pledge to fully implement the recommendations of the Bahraini Independent Commission of Inquiry, which looked into last year’s violence, State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland said today.
“This is not going to be easy,” Nuland said. “But making these kinds of deep-seated institutional changes that the BICI has called for will help forge the kind of path we need to see towards reconciliation in Bahrain.”
She said Bahrain is a “longstanding” and “valued” partner of the U.S., which bases the Navy’s Fifth Fleet there.
The state-run Bahrain News Agency said in a Twitter posting that several people set fire to an electric transmitter in the Shiite village of Mughsha and attacked civil defense workers to prevent firefighters from putting out the fire.
Bahrain’s army chief said on Twitter today that the commander of Peninsula Shield, as the Gulf force is called, is in the country and there are no plans for the troops to leave.
Tensions in the island nation have simmered in Shiite villages throughout the past year and have recently spread to the capital, Manama, as protests became more violent in the run-up to today’s anniversary.
The area surrounding the Pearl Roundabout, which was the center of the demonstrations in February and March last year, has been turned into a military zone restricted by barbed wire. Protesters have tried several times to reoccupy it.
The government has warned Bahrainis against responding to protest calls, saying civil disorder won’t be tolerated. A march by al-Wefaq, the largest Shiite group, turned violent yesterday with participants hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks at police, according to the security forces. Police used tear gas and stun grenades, opposition groups said.
Opposition parties said in a joint statement yesterday that they will continue pressing for their rights and will make “no compromise on the blood of the martyrs.”
Thirty-five people died in the two months from Feb. 14, according to the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry. The opposition says many more have died from tear-gas inhalation and torture, allegations the government denies.
The ruling al-Khalifa family accused Shiite-ruled Iran of encouraging the unrest, an allegation the Islamic republic has denied. Shiites represent about two-thirds of Bahrain’s native population, according to the U.S. State Department.