Bahrain police disperse march – Riyadh vows ‘iron fist’, blames ‘foreign parties’


p1a2 Bahrain police disperse march   Riyadh vows ‘iron fist’,  blames ‘foreign parties’
DAIH, Bahrain: An anti-government protester stands with a Bahraini flag in front of approaching police vehicles as another protester runs alongside it yesterday on the edge of the capital Manama. The flag reads: ‘We will return.’ — AP

LONDON/MANAMA: Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry said yesterday its security forces would use “an iron fist” to end violence in a Shiite area of the country and defended its tactics against what it called foreign-backed troublemakers. Sunni Muslim kingdom Saudi Arabia has blamed an unnamed foreign power, widely understood to mean Shiite Iran, for backing attacks on its security forces in its Eastern Province. But members of the Shiite minority in the area have accused the kingdom’s own security force of using violence against protesters.
“It is the state’s right to confront those that confront it first … and the Saudi Arabian security forces will confront such situations … with determination and force and with an iron first,” the ministry said in a statement. The statement came in response to a sermon preached in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province last week that criticised the government’s handling of the situation, in which at least six people have been killed, a ministry spokesman said. Shiite activists in Qatif said the clashes first began at the height of the Arab uprisings last year and were provoked by the detention without charge of political campaigners.
Four people were killed in November, one in January and one earlier this month, the interior ministry has said in past statements. Members of the minority have long complained of discrimination, which they say makes it harder for them to find government jobs, attend university or worship in open than members of the Sunni majority. Since the protests and clashes started last year, they have also complained of police checkpoints and patrols which they describe as heavy handed.
The government says it does not discriminate against Shiites and has said the increased security is intended to protect Qatif residents. It has repeatedly blamed the clashes on people attacking security forces. The statement said the security forces were using “the greatest restraint … despite continuing provocations” and “will not act except in self defence and will not initiate confrontations”. “Some of those few (who attacked security forces) are manipulated by foreign hands because of the kingdom’s honourable foreign policy positions towards Arab and Islamic countries,” the ministry’s spokesman said in the statement. Saudi Arabia and Iran have fought for influence across the Middle East.
Separately, Bahraini police used water cannon and tear gas to break up a march chanting anti-government slogans after a funeral yesterday, while protesters were arrested for approaching a roundabout at the centre of an uprising last year. Bahrain, a US ally and home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been in turmoil since protests erupted on Feb 14 last year, inspired by demonstrations sweeping the Arab world.
The country has a Shiite majority, but is ruled by a Sunni ruling family. The government imposed martial law last year and crushed demonstrations after inviting troops from other Gulf states, led by Sunni power Saudi Arabia, to help restore order.
The anniversary of last year’s protests has seen an increase in demonstrations, mainly by Shiites who say they seek more democracy. The past week has seen police use water cannon to disperse protests for the first time in 11 months. Yesterday’s clash took place in Jidhafs, an area just outside the capital Manama, after the funeral of Hussein Al-Baqali, 19, whose family says he died this week from burns sustained last month during a tyre-burning at anti-government protests. His family says he was unable to go to state hospitals for fear of arrest. The Interior Ministry said he set himself alight with intent to commit suicide.
“After the burial of Hussain Al-Baqali in Jidhafs, groups of vandals rioted. Police legally dispersed them,” the Interior Ministry said in its Twitter feed.  Police moved in on a group of over 500 people who marched down to a traffic junction inside the town, using two water cannon lorries backed up by helicopters and dozens of riot police in armoured vehicles and on foot firing tear gas.
The ministry also said “vandals” were later arrested for trying to block traffic on the highway near the former Pearl Roundabout, a traffic junction occupied by anti-government protesters for a month last year until the movement was crushed. The junction’s pearl monument, once a national landmark, was razed after the protests last year. Opposition figures have said they wanted to mark the anniversary of the protests by re-occupying the area. There have been clashes in nearby Shiite villages all week.
Said Yousif Almuhafda, an opposition activist, said different groups totalling around 30 people had tried on Monday to approach the roundabout, which is under heavy guard. Some were arrested after tear gas was fired. He said that earlier Zainab Al-Khawaja, a prominent activist whose father is one of 14 opposition leaders in jail, had been released following her arrest when she approached the roundabout with a group of people last week.
Police say protesters are not permitted to block highways and point to permits granted to opposition parties for marches and rallies in areas that will not disrupt traffic. The opposition says it is the closure of the roundabout that is holding up traffic. Shiites, who say they face political and economic marginalisation, have dominated the protests seeking reforms to allow parliament to form governments and reduce the powers of the ruling family. The government has begun contact with opposition parties on a possible dialogue to end the crisis. – Reuters