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Bahrain authorities launch surprise attack on protesters

Tear gas canisters bombard sleeping protesters in Manama's Pearl Square. At least two men are reported killed by rubber bullets.

February 17, 2011|By Ned Parker and Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times
  • A Bahraini man is comforted at a hospital in Manama as he grieves for one of those killed. Security forces' surprise attack on demonstrators injured dozens, including toddlers.
A Bahraini man is comforted at a hospital in Manama as he grieves for one of… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Manama, Bahrain, and Amman, Jordan — Security forces in tiny but strategic Bahrain launched a brutal assault early Thursday against at least 1,000 defiant anti-government protesters, including children, camped out in tents in the capital's Pearl Square. At least two were killed and 50 hurt.

Update, 5:53 a.m.:
Death toll: Three people were killed and 231 wounded in a police operation to clear protesters from a Manama square Thursday, Bahrain's health minister said. Faisal bin Yaqoob al-Hamer told Reuters that 36 people were still being treated, including one in intensive care.

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 a makeshift tent city in the center of Manama that was beginning to resemble a smaller version of Tahrir Square in Cairo, where Egyptian protesters this month were successful in overthrowing their president.

After a peaceful, festive evening, most of the protesters in Pearl Square were asleep when the attack began, witnesses said, noting that no steps had been taken to guard the area against the security forces, even though two people had been killed in clashes with them earlier in the week.

"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."

As flashing blue police car lights cast an eerie strobe effect down side streets and a helicopter swooped overhead, packs of young men with bandannas covering their faces to thwart billowing clouds of gas fled the area, flashing V signs while shouting 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 unconscious from the fumes.

"I was sleeping and then I heard screaming," protester Alla Mutawa said. "They attacked children; they used gas that choked you like you were dying."

After the raid, hundreds of wailing relatives packed the halls and lobby of Salmaniya Medical Complex, creating pandemonium as they frantically searched for loved ones.

Medical officials said they had seen at least one older man and a younger man killed by rubber bullets. At least 50 people, including toddlers, were receiving emergency treatment for injuries. Doctors said they expected the death toll to rise.

Relatives crowded into a room where two bodies were covered by bloody sheets. One woman in a black abaya pounded the walls and herself, keening and screaming: "Our heart! Our souls! Our martyrs!"

"We were shouting: 'Peaceful! Peaceful!' " in imitation of the Tahrir Square protesters, a woman in a hospital hallway said as she tearfully held a small child being treated with oxygen. "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, everyone."

She showed a vicious bite mark on her arm, saying she was beaten with a billy club and bitten by a police officer as she tried to 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 help 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!" As the stream of injured continued unabated, the enraged crowd began yelling anti-government slogans.

Many of those being pulled from the ambulances had been beaten severely, and the hands of many were bound behind their backs with plastic cuffs, giving credence to claims that they had been hit while helpless.

Before the storming of the square, the protesters had been calling for major rallies after Friday prayers. This latest violence, however, could prove to be a spark. Bahrain's rulers, meanwhile, scheduled an emergency parliament session for later Thursday, the Associated Press reported.

On Thursday morning, trampled tents, torn banners and other debris littered the empty square, and dozens of tanks and military trucks were seen heading down a mostly empty thoroughfare toward the plaza.

The protesters had set up camp there, some with their families, to signal their intent to stay until King Hamad 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 Tunisia, Bahrain's unrest is rooted in the discrimination felt by the impoverished Shiite Muslim majority at the hands of the governing Sunni Muslim royal family.

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