MANAMA // Bahrain's crown prince renewed his call for national dialogue yesterday amid continued protests in the capital.
Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa said the talks would address key demands such as bolstering the power of parliament, and any agreement could be put to a referendum.
"We have worked actively to establish contacts to learn the views of various sides … which shows our commitment to a comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue," he said.
In Riyadh, the secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) reiterated the organisation's solidarity with Bahrain. Abdulrahman bin Hamad al Attiyah said safeguarding security and stability in one country was a collective responsibility, and rejected any foreign interference in Bahrain's internal affairs. "Any acts aiming to destabilise the kingdom and sow dissension between its citizens represent a dangerous encroachment on the whole GCC security and stability," he said.
The heart of Bahrain's financial district was convulsed with sectarian street battles yesterday as anti-government protesters clashed with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets, eyewitnesses said.
No deaths were reported but it was the worst outbreak of violence since seven protesters were killed several weeks ago, authorities failed to dislodge the thousands of mostly Shiite protesters blocking King Faisal Highway into Manama. They are demanding a greater role in politics and an end to alleged corruption and discrimination.
The continuing violence underscores the fragility of Bahrain's desired role as an emerging business haven and as a strategic ally for Washington, which keeps the US Navy's 5th Fleet at dock in the kingdom.
About three kilometres away from the clashes in the financial district, police moved on a protest camp in Pearl Square. It was the largest effort to clear the area since demonstrations started in mid-February.
A protest at a university also turned violent yesterday as security forces and government supporters, reportedly armed with knives and clubs, clashed with students.
"The regime is using thugs," said Khalil Marzooq, a member of the main Shiite opposition group.
The protesters defiantly pushed their cause a day after US Defence Secretary Robert Gates visited and urged Bahrain and other Arab governments facing popular uprisings to move quickly towards democratic reforms.
Mr Gates said he had told Bahrain's leaders to quickly adopt major reforms or risk being left behind by the tide of change sweeping across the region.
"I told both the king and the crown prince that across the region I did not believe there could be a return to the status quo," Mr Gates told reporters after the talks.
"And obviously leading the reform and being responsive is the way we'd like to see this move forward," he said.
He also warned that Shiite-led Iran could work to use Bahrain's sectarian tensions to its advantage. The strong US naval presence in Bahrain is seen as a counterweight to the expansion of Iranian influence in the region.
Meanwhile, the Shiite protesters are demanding greater political freedoms for their majority population and want the Sunni monarchy to give up its monopoly on power. Many are digging in for prolonged civil unrest.
Witnesses at Pearl Square said security forces surrounded the protesters' tent compound, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at the activists.
Bahrain's government said in a statement that 14 security officers were injured while conducting "operations to reopen the King Faisal Highway". Police dispersed about 350 protesters "by using tear gas," the government said.
The statement did not mention police activity at Pearl Square, where by early afternoon police had pulled back from the square after crowds refused to back down, witnesses said. "No going back," they chanted. The crowd swelled into thousands with protesters streaming to the square to reinforce the activists' lines as police continued firing tear gas.
Hundreds of protesters are said to have sought medical help, mostly with breathing problems.
Four people were killed at Pearl Square last month when security forces stormed it just days after the protesters set up their camp.
At the same time three other people were killed at protests aimed at reclaiming the square.
The Shiite protesters say they will not leave Pearl Square until they get rights equal to those of Bahrain's Sunnis and until the country is moving toward becoming a true constitutional monarchy with an elected government.
Others say they will remain at the Pearl Square until the Al Khalifa family, which has ruled for 200 years, leaves altogether.
"The police were determined to clear the protesters from the square, but we are on a peaceful mission here, demanding our rights, and we are ready to die for our country," said Mohammed Abdullah, a 38-year-old protester at the square.
In recent years, Bahrain has tried to position itself as an attractive investment destination and Middle East banking centre. Even the passport stamps issued to incoming visitors declare the kingdom to be "Business-friendly Bahrain".
This claim became increasingly shaky yesterday when Bahrain's main trade union announced an open-ended strike to denounce the use of force against protesters.
"This is in violation of human rights and international conventions ratified by the kingdom of Bahrain," said the General Federation of Workers Trade Unions.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse