Anti-government protesters wave flags Wednesday evening in a demonstration… (Hasan Jamali / Associated…)
Reporting from Amman, Jordan, and Manama, Bahrain — Security forces in tiny but strategic Bahrain launched a brutal assault early Thursday against at least 1,000 defiant anti-government protesters, including women and children, camped out in tents in the capital's Pearl Square.
A barrage of tear gas canisters thundered across the square about 3 a.m. as dozens of police cars, armored security vehicles and ambulances converged on the makeshift tent city in the center of Manama that was beginning to resemble a smaller version of Tahrir Square in Cairo, where Egyptian protesters overthrew their president.
Most of the protesters in Pearl Square were asleep when attacked, witnesses said, noting that no steps had been taken to guard the area, even though two people had been killed in earlier clashes with authorities.
"They told us we had three days in the square," said one man as he ran from the scene. "And then they attack us on the second day."
Flashing blue police car lights cast an eerie strobe effect down side streets and a helicopter swooped overhead, as packs of young men with bandannas covering their faces against the clouds of gas fled. They flashed "V" signs and shouted slogans and warnings.
"Get away, they'll shoot you, they'll shoot anyone they think is Bahraini," some called. Security forces in Bahrain are often recruited from neighboring nations or Southeast Asia.
Other weeping escapees told of seeing women and children lying passed out from the fumes.
"I was sleeping and then I heard screaming," said protester Alla Mutawa. "They attacked children, they used gas that choked you like you were dying."
In the wake of the attack, hundreds of wailing relatives packed the halls and lobby of Salmaniya Medical Complex, creating pandemonium as they frantically searched for loved ones amid the chaos. Medical officials said they had seen at least one older man and a younger man killed by rubber bullets and at least 50 people, including toddlers, were being treated for injuries. They said they expected the toll to rise.
Relatives crowded into a room where the two bodies were draped by bloody sheets. One woman in a black abiya pounded the walls and herself, keening and screaming, "Our heart! Our souls! Our martyrs!"
"We were shouting, 'Peaceful, peaceful,' " in an imitation of the Tahrir Square protesters, a woman said as she tearfully held a small child being treated with oxygen in a hallway. "Tomorrow the king will say, 'Sorry,' but this was done with his permission. He is the one telling these men to do these things."
Nurse Zainab Yousef Hassan said she was working in a clinic in the square when "they came from everywhere, so many police, and began beating doctors."
She showed a vicious bite mark on her arm, saying she clubbed and bitten by a police officer as she tried escape. She finally managed to grab two children who were in the clinic and ran to a mosque before making her way to the hospital to treat the injured there.
As a stream of ambulances continued to roll up and unload the wounded onto a river of gurneys, an angry crowd began to throw fists into the air and chant, "Enough, enough."
The protesters had set up camp in the square -- some bringing their families -- to signal their intent to stay until King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa forced his uncle to step down as prime minister and guaranteed an end to discrimination and repression.
Unlike the heavily nationalist revolts in Egypt and Tunisa, Bahrain's unrest is rooted in the discrimination felt by the poor Shiite majority at the hands of a a governing Sunni royal family. The island nation of about 740,000 people is also crucial to U.S. interests in the region: It hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
The demands of protesters have grown over three days, with the crowd now torn between those who want constitutional reforms and others who say openly that they want the family of the king to step down.
Bahrain's protest movement appears to be largely leaderless, although medical and media centers have been organized by the demonstrators. Some credit the use of Facebook, Twitter and blogs with providing a forum for activists to trade ideas and promote the rally.
Before Thursday's crackdown, the unrest in Bahrain had emerged as among the most potent anti-government force in a string of sometimes lethal demonstrations sweeping the Middle East, importing the lessons of North Africa's recent uprisings into the oil-rich Persian Gulf.
The successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have become models for a daily phenomenon in places like Yemen and Bahrain. With new marches planned in several other countries over the next several days, including Morocco and Libya, governments from North Africa to the Gulf were settling in for what looks to be an extended period of instability.