Clashes in Bahrain as police block protest march

DUBAI (Reuters) - Protesters trying to march to the heart of Bahrain's capital clashed with riot police on Friday, witnesses said, hours after a massive show of force by the mainstream Shi'ite Muslim opposition.

They said dozens of youths threw stones at police who used teargas and stun grenades to block the planned march to the Pearl roundabout, the centre of an uprising last year which the government suppressed with the help of troops from neighbors, including Saudi Arabia.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Bahrain, where the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family rules over a majority Shi'ite Muslim population, has been in turmoil since an uprising erupted last year demanding reforms after successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

The protests escalated ahead of last week's Formula One Grand Prix, drawing criticism of Bahrain from some governments, rights groups and media watchdogs who say police use excessive force and the government should find a political solution.

Earlier on Friday, tens of thousands of people attended a rally in nearby Jidhafs, a village west of the capital Manama, called by the main Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq.

The demonstration was peaceful, with protesters demanding the release of opposition leader, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike for more than two months, and the dismissal of the prime minister who has held his post for more than four decades.

In a rare interview, Prime Minister Sheikh Kalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa said his departure would not resolve the conflict.

"Believe me, if my position alone were the reason for the unrest, then I would have already stepped down from my office last year. But this is just a further excuse from the opposition," Sheikh Khalifa told Der Spiegel, according to the German weekly's website.

"I am very proud of Bahrain's achievements and the role I have played in realizing them," he said.

"The opposition is only looking for excuses, abusing demands for 'more rights' and 'democracy' to turn Bahrain into a second Iran," Sheikh Khalifa said, according to Der Spiegel.

The opposition denies being linked to Iran and Tehran rejects accusations of interfering in Bahrain's internal affairs.


Also on Friday, police detained at least three protesters who were among dozens who had gathered in front of the Interior Ministry to demand the release of Khawaja, resident said.

One of 14 men jailed for leading last year's uprising, Khawaja, has been fasting for 79 days. He is serving a life sentence for expressing support for Bahrain becoming a republic.

On Thursday, protesters attacked a police station with petrol bombs and riot police responded with teargas and stun grenades after a funeral march for a man killed in clashes during the Formula One race last week.

The clashes took place after thousands of mourners visited the grave of Salah Abbas Habib, 36, who was found dead last Saturday after disappearing during fighting between protesters and police

Wefaq says his death takes to 81 the number of people killed since the protests began. That figure includes 35 who died during the initial uprising and more than two months of martial law, among them five security personnel.

The government disputes the cause of death in many cases and says the protesters are hooligans who are trying to kill police. It says a homemade bomb wounded four policemen this week, and that seven policemen were wounded earlier this month.

The turmoil has continued with regular mass marches and almost daily clashes in Shi'ite areas throughout the island.

(Reporting by Hamad Mohammed; Writing by Firouz Sedarat)