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Bahrain continues crackdown on opposition

Several opposition leaders are arrested and troops accompanied by bulldozers begin clearing the tent city in Pearl Square and sealing off Shiite neighborhoods in the capital.

March 17, 2011|By David S. Cloud, Los Angeles Times
  • Protesters put up makeshift barricades at a Shiite neighborhood in Manama, the Bahraini capital.
Protesters put up makeshift barricades at a Shiite neighborhood in Manama,… (Joseph Eid, AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Manama, Bahrain — Bahrain's security forces arrested at least half a dozen opposition leaders Thursday and surrounded Shiite Muslim neighborhoods on the second day of a crackdown that, at least for now, appeared to have left the regime's opponents frightened and divided about how to respond.

Opposition activists said the most prominent of those arrested were Hassan Mushaima, a hard-line Shiite leader of the Haq movement who had only weeks ago returned from London exile, and Abdul Jalil Singace, another Haq leader who had been released from prison less than a month ago. Haq has been one of the most prominent opposition groups demanding the elimination of Bahrain's Sunni monarchy.

The arrests came only hours after police and soldiers swept through Manama's Pearl Square in a violent operation to oust protesters who had occupied the traffic circle for the last month demanding far-reaching changes in the political system, in which a Sunni Muslim monarchy governs a Shiite Muslim-majority nation.

The effectiveness of the crackdown could be tested in the next few days at the funeral for one of two protesters killed Wednesday, which will be held in a heavily Shiite area outside Manama, the capital. Opposition groups were urging followers to attend the funeral as a protest of the raid in Pearl Square.

"It would be too much if the army tried to suppress people from attending the funeral," said Khalil Marzooq, a member of the mainstream Shiite opposition group Wefaq. "This crackdown will not stop people from demanding genuine reform."

Seven moderate opposition groups called Thursday for citizens to continue to stay away from work and school in coming days to protest the regime's harsh crackdown. Such steps are unlikely to satisfy hard-line groups, but whether they can organize new protests in the face of the massive military and police presence in the streets remains uncertain.

Bahrain's military, which has assumed wide powers since the declaration of martial law Tuesday, said that "several leaders of the sedition ring who had called for the downfall of the regime" had been arrested.

The General Command of the Bahrain Defense Force alleged that the detainees had "intelligence contacts with foreign countries" and "had incited during the recent incidents for the killing of citizens and the destruction of public and private property." The statement did not identify the detainees.

The harsh measures marked a sharp shift for the ruling Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslims. The monarchy had sought in recent weeks to divide the opposition groups with offers of talks and other concessions. But the strategy was abandoned after some protesters last week began blocking roads into the capital's financial district, paralyzing the tiny nation.

Workers using bulldozers and dump trucks Thursday removed the remnants of the tent city that protesters had set up in Pearl Square, and troops in armored vehicles remained stationed at roads leading into the area. Security forces sealed off heavily Shiite areas nearby, apparently in an effort to deter renewed protests.

In the Shiite neighborhood of Sanabis on Thursday, pairs of armed riot police officers stood at every intersection. A day earlier, the area had seen confusion and anger as protesters retreated from Pearl Square and sought refuge in its narrow streets and closely packed houses.

A young man, his head bowed, was seen kneeling by the side of the road, surrounded by soldiers who had thrown open the doors and trunk of his compact car. There were unconfirmed reports that security forces entered Senabis to make arrests and that they had taken over Salmaniya Medical Complex, where many demonstrators had been taken for treatment.

"People are all in turmoil, because most of them are besieged in towns or in hospital," said Jajar Mahfoodh, a Shiite activist. "I don't know how we can make our voices heard."

She said that her father, Sheik Mohamed Mahfoodh, the leader of a small radical Shiite opposition group, had not been heard from since Wednesday and that she feared that authorities had taken him into custody.

Saudi Arabia sent hundreds of soldiers Monday into Bahrain at the Bahraini government's request, but the Saudi forces have remained largely out of sight.

Other opposition figures arrested Thursday included Shiite activist Abdul Wahab Hussein, who was one of hundreds pardoned last month in a government move to assuage protesters, and Ebrahim Sharif, the leader of a moderate Sunni group.

A relative of Haq leader Singace who was present during his arrest said dozens of troops surrounded his house near downtown Manama early Thursday. Singace, 48, who uses a wheelchair, was pulled out of bed and forced into a van, the relative said, and officers searched the house.

Singace was released in the recent amnesty. The relative said the family had been given no information about the charges he faced or where he was taken.

david.cloud@latimes.com

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