Bahrain protesters confront police outside capital


DUBAI, Dec 15 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Bahraini protesters confronted riot police for hours on Thursday near a highway leading to the capital Manama, retreating when officers fired stun grenades and tear gas but regrouping moments later, residents said.
Demonstrators, mainly from the Gulf Arab state's majority Shi'ite Muslim community, have often blocked roads over the course of 10 months of protests demanding more political rights from the Sunni Muslim-dominated monarchy.
"Protesters are in batches of 40-50 each. There are still many police officers and vehicles here trying to keep demonstrators away from the highway. But protesters keep coming back," one resident told Reuters by telephone from the town of Budaiya, just west of Manama.
Police detained Zainab al-Khawaja, a human rights activist and daughter of a prominent opposition leader, after she joined the protesters, many of whom chanted slogans against King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a witness said.
"Sitting in a roundabout on Budaiya street, shouting down down Hamad. Until now riot police don't seem to know what to do ... A few girls have joined me now," Khawaja said earlier on her Twitter account (@angryarabiya).
Bahrain is important to Western interests in the Middle East because it hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and faces Shi'ite giant Iran on the other side of the Gulf. Iran has denied Bahraini government accusations that it has incited the protests.
Inspired by "Arab Spring" uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of mainly Shi'ite Bahrainis took to the streets in February and March demanding curbs on the power of the ruling Al-Khalifa family and an end to perceived discrimination.
The broader pro-democracy movement was suppressed with the help of military forces brought in from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But small, low-level protests have persisted on an almost daily basis.
A government-appointed commission of international jurists found evidence of systematic abuses against detained protesters.
Bahrain has hired U.S. and British police chiefs to spearhead a reform of its security agencies.
There has been no progress in talks between the government and opposition groups on political reform and sectarian tensions continue to dog the Gulf Arab island state.
(Reporting by Firouz Sedarat; Editing by Mark Heinrich)