MANAMA // Bahrain's military imposed a curfew and a ban on public gatherings yesterday after security forces cleared a protest camp, prompting three government members to resign.
The king's top legal adviser and the health minister stepped down and the housing minister said he would boycott cabinet meetings, an opposition newspaper reported.
A curfew was imposed between 4pm and 4am in the area around the Pearl Roundabout after riot police cleared the camp there with volleys of tear gas and buckshot. Demonstrations, rallies and sit-ins were also banned under the state of emergency declared by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on Tuesday, a statement by the Bahrain Defence Forces said.
Two protesters and two members of the security forces were reportedly killed in clashes as police and soldiers pushed protesters out of the city centre, where the presence of security forces had escalated in recent days.
The violence has led to calls by some members of the international community for restraint and a return to dialogue. The US president, Barack Obama, called King Hamad and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah to express his "deep concern" about violent clashes between authorities and protesters, and to urge both sides to use the political process rather than force to settle their differences, the White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Mr Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said a decision by members of the Gulf Co-operation Council to send a force of at least 1,500 troops and police to Bahrain was "on the wrong track".
In response to yesterday morning's raid, at least four members of Bahrain's appointed Shura Council and 12 Shiite judges also resigned, Al Wasat reported.
Ahmed al Asfor, the adviser to the Supreme Judicial Court and believed to be close to King Hamad, said he was resigning because of the "extensive violence used against the people of Bahrain", the newspaper said. He also accused the government of "spreading sectarian news and broadcasts by the official media agencies".
Majeed al Alawi, the minister of housing, also condemned the handling of the protests. "I boycott the government because of the way it is dealing with the current events in the country," Al Wasat quoted him as saying.
Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow and Bahrain expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said those officials who resigned were reformists whose credibility had been undermined by the government's response to the protests. "Supporters of the reformists were willing to believe that the first round of violence could have been a mistake," Ms Kinninmont said. "It is now clear that this was not the case.
"I don't think this seriously challenges the king's power, but it is a further blow to any credibility left in the reform process."
Police raided the Pearl Roundabout camp shortly after 7am yesterday, firing tear-gas canisters at the protesters while military helicopters circled overhead. Army vehicles, including six tanks, were positioned less than half a kilometre away.
"Why are they doing this? They are killing us," said Hussain, 26, as he took cover inside the fish market next to the roundabout. "We will just come back until our demands are accepted."
Within an hour, the protesters had dispersed into the streets around the roundabout. Armoured police took up position in the roundabout as smoke filled the air from several burning tents and gas canisters exploded from the heat. Bulldozers swept aside the protesters' makeshift barricades, which had extended over a large part of the city centre.
Police and soldiers then fanned out through the streets, smashing and searching cars. Witnesses said the security forces, using shotguns, fought with protesters in the surrounding districts.
A witness in Sanabis, about two kilometres from the roundabout, said police had used shotguns and tear gas to attack protesters, leaving many injured. He said many wounded had gone to a mosque there and a small medical centre had been overwhelmed.
Security forces blocked access to Salmaniya Medical Centre, the nearest hospital to the roundabout, witnesses said.
Abdel Jalil Khalil, the head of Wefaq, the main opposition party, said: "This is a war of annihilation. This does not happen even in wars and this is not acceptable."
A government statement defended the operation. Police had come under attack from "250 saboteurs" who hurled Molotov cocktails as they approached the roundabout, it said.
"At no point in the operation live were rounds used," the statement said. "The only fatalities during the operation were the deaths of two police officers killed after being repeatedly run over."
In Manama and across the country, the situation remained tense. Tanks guarded the entrance to most Shiite towns and villages.
The protesters, most of whom are Shiite, are divided between those who want a constitutional monarchy and other democratic reforms and more radical groups who want to overthrow the Sunni dynasty.
The GCC's Peninsula Shield force, which includes 1,000 Saudi troops and 500 UAE policemen, arrived on Monday to protect key government installations. Exactly where the force deployed remained unclear yesterday.
In Cairo, Mrs Clinton, who visited Tahrir Square, the nerve centre of the Egyptian anti-government protests, said: "We find what's happening in Bahrain alarming. We think that there is no security answer to the aspirations and demands of the demonstrators. We have also made that very clear to our Gulf partners … they are on the wrong track."
The US state department issued a message on the Twitter microblogging site saying it objected to what it called "excessive force and violence" used against protesters.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, urged "all sides to take the necessary steps to create the conditions to allow serious, comprehensive and constructive dialogue to proceed without delay".
From Iran to Saudi Arabia and the Iraqi city of Najaf, Shiites rallied behind the protesters.
In Najaf, the Shia spiritual guide, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, "appealed to Bahraini authorities to stop violence against unarmed citizens".
Iran called the "mobilisation" against the protesters "heinous, unjustifiable and incomprehensible". On Tuesday, Bahrain withdrew its ambassador from Tehran, saying that Iran's comments on the situation constituted uncalled-for intervention into its internal affairs.
* With additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse