Bahrain's King Seeks Talks With Foes Amid Clashes in Region
Bahrain’s King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa called for a “dialogue” after hundreds of protesters were injured by Bahraini security forces in two days of turmoil in the capital, Manama.
President Barack Obama said today he is “deeply concerned” by the violence in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, as well as by clashes in Libya and in Yemen, whose government cooperates with the U.S. on anti-terror efforts. In addition, police opened fire today on demonstrators in Djibouti, the Horn of Africa nation that hosts the only U.S. military base on the continent, according to the leader of an opposition party.
In Bahrain, King Hamad asked his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, to try to resolve the conflict, the Bahrain News Agency reported. The prince, who attended the U.S. Defense Department high school in Bahrain and earned a B.A. at American University in Washington, is viewed by American diplomats as a part of the “reformist camp within the ruling party,” according to a Dec. 2009 embassy cable made public by the WikiLeaks group.
“We have assigned him to start a dialogue with all parties and sections in our beloved Bahrain without exception,” the king was quoted as saying.
The king’s announcement came after security forces attacked protesters -- many of them majority Shiite Muslims in the Sunni- ruled island nation -- for a second day. Doctors in Manama treated bullet wounds and broken bones among demonstrators urging the government’s ouster.
More than 100 people were wounded and being treated at Salmaniya Hospital, Ahmed Jamal, president of the Bahrain medical society, said after today’s clashes. Ghassen Dhaif, a surgeon in a Salmaniya operating room, said four are in critical condition and some have been hit by live bullets. “It couldn’t be from a rubber bullet,” Dhaif said.
The crackdown took place during a fifth day of protests, drawing the week’s biggest crowd, in the Persian Gulf island nation, where at least five people have been killed in the turmoil.
Abdulwahab Hussain, a senior Shiite Muslim leader, earlier today told more than 10,000 demonstrators that the government must resign and parliament should shut down pending a transition to democracy.
The dissent in Bahrain and elsewhere, including Jordan and Kuwait, follows the toppling of autocratic rulers by popular movements in Egypt and Tunisia and marks the spread of unrest into the Gulf, where most of the Middle East’s oil is produced.
Crude for March delivery on the New York Mercantile Exchange was up 35 cents at $86.71 a barrel at 1:19 p.m. London time. Brent crude for April settlement was down 35 cents at $102.24 on the ICE Futures Europe exchange in London, after reaching a 2 1/2-year high this week.
President Obama is “deeply concerned by reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen,” according to a statement read to reporters traveling with the Obama today on Air Force One by White House spokesman Jay Carney. The U.S. urges regimes “to show restraint in responding to peaceful protest and to respect the rights of their people,” Carney said.
In Libya, Africa’s biggest holder of crude oil reserves, activists called for more rallies to remove Muammar Qaddafi, in power for more than 40 years. Human Rights Watch said 24 have been killed in protests this week, and Al Jazeera television put the figure as high as 50.
Clashes in Yemen, Djibouti
In Yemen, the biggest crowd since protests began more than a week ago demanded the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh, president for three decades. Police and government supporters attacked demonstrators with stones and batons. Three people were killed, one by a hand grenade thrown at the protesters, Al Jazeera reported.
Police opened fire on demonstrators in Djibouti, according to opposition leader Mohamed Daoud Chehem, head of the Djibouti Party for Development.
“The police are confronting demonstrators,” he said by phone from the protest in the capital, without being able to specify if anyone was injured or what type of ammunition was used.
Chehem earlier said that as many as 20,000 people had joined the protest against President Ismail Guelleh, and that he expected numbers to swell to 50,000.
Live ammunition was used by both sides and a crowd of around 100 demonstrators started throwing stones after leaders of the protest were escorted away, according to Djibouti-based website Djibouti24. Witnesses saw injured police and demonstrators with guns were arrested, according to the website. Fog from tear gas made it difficult to verify how many demonstrators were injured, it reported.
Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of the popular revolt that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, was crammed with tens of thousands urging the army to stand by the promises of a transition to democracy it made when assuming power last week.
In Bahrain, protesters blamed security forces for the violence. “We were walking holding the Bahrain flag, more than 2,000 people, and suddenly they shot at us,” Nabil Ali, a 22- year-old student who was among the protesters, said today. “The military, they shot us.”
Protesters were fleeing toward the Salmaniya hospital, where many had sought refuge or been taken for treatment after yesterday’s crackdown, in which the army fired tear gas, buckshot and rubber bullets. Doctor Feras Hashim, an orthopedic surgeon, said he saw injuries today including bullet wounds, blunt-force trauma and broken bones.
Brink of Abyss
Earlier, thousands had attended the funeral of two protesters, hugging their coffins and shouting: “We sacrifice for Bahrain.”
Bahrain’s authorities said the intervention by security forces yesterday was necessary to restore order.
“The country was on the brink of a sectarian abyss,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said at a press conference. “It was a very important step that had to happen. Police took every care possible.”
The protesters are calling for a constitutional monarchy and a change of government in the Shiite-majority country. The prime minister, the focus of the demonstrators’ demands, has held the office for four decades. Shiites make up some 60 to 70 percent of the population, which is about 740,000 according to the CIA World Factbook, and claim discrimination by the country’s Sunni ruling family and its supporters.
‘Marred by Violence’
At a rival pro-government demonstration, hundreds of cars looped around central Manama, waving flags. Some had Qatari license plates.
“We were shocked at the protests, we love the royal family,” said Mai al-Majid, 30, a central bank employee. The king “listens to what everyone has to say and his door is open to everyone.”
The cost of insuring Bahrain debt rose for a fifth day, climbing 18 basis points to 302, the highest in 17 months, according to CMA prices for credit default swaps. Fitch Ratings yesterday put Bahrain on rating-watch negative, saying the protests “increase the risks to the sovereign’s credit profile.”
Swap contracts for Saudi Arabia, used as a measure of confidence although the country has no debt to insure, jumped 10.5 basis points to 137, the highest since July 2009, on concern the unrest may spread to the world’s biggest oil exporter, which neighbors Bahrain and has a Shiite minority population in the Eastern Province, where most of its oil is produced.
Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Shiite-ruled Iran, has also experienced protests this week, and deployed security forces to suppress a Feb. 14 rally by opposition movements to show solidarity with the Arab revolts. Many Shiite Bahrainis retain cultural and family ties with Iran, while Bahrain’s Sunni ruling family has links with Saudi Arabia.
In Libya, small groups set fires in the streets of the capital, Tripoli, and the office of internal security was set ablaze in Benghazi, the BBC reported today. Pro-government rallies have taken place in Tripoli and Qaddafi has been meeting with tribal leaders to solicit their support, Al Jazeera said.
Gunfire broke out in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, on the eighth straight day of anti-government demonstrations. More than 20,000 protesters streamed out of Friday prayers toward the presidential palace, overwhelming police efforts to contain them. “After Mubarak, Ali,” they chanted, calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to quit.
Saleh said this month he won’t seek another term when the current one ends in 2013. “A number” of people have been killed since demonstrations began, the official Saba news agency said yesterday, without elaborating.
Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets
Kuwaiti authorities used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to break up a demonstration by about 1,000 stateless residents west of Kuwait City today. The government says there are about 100,000 stateless people in the country. Many don’t have access to basic services such as medical care and education.
Eight people were injured in Jordan in clashes between government supporters and protesters demanding wider rights and higher living standards, Al Arabiya television said.
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