MANAMA // Bahrain's Shiite opposition leader yesterday urged Iran to keep out of the country's internal affairs as the foreign minister warned of sectarian strife spreading through the Gulf.
Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of Al Wefaq, the main opposition party, also warned against Bahrain being used for a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
"We urge Iran not to meddle in Bahraini internal affairs," he told a press conference, also demanding the withdrawal of Saudi-led Gulf troops deployed in the kingdom in mid-March to help quash the Shiite-led protests.
"We demand Saudi Arabia withdraw the Peninsula Shield forces," he said. "We do not want Bahrain to turn into a battlefield for Saudi Arabia and Iran."
Twenty-four people, four of them police, have been killed in a month of unrest, Bahrain's interior minister, Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, said yesterday.
The interior minister linked the troubles to Lebanon's Iran-backed group Hizbollah.
Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, said his government, criticised for its use of deadly force, feared that protests there could provide the spark for sectarian conflict in other Gulf states.
"There have been sectarian tensions everywhere" for centuries, he told the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat. "Bahrain was afraid sectarian confrontations would break out not only in Bahrain but in all other regions."
On Friday the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, warned that military intervention in Bahrain by its Sunni neighbours in the Gulf risked touching off a sectarian war in the region.
Sheikh Khaled said that the violence in Bahrain had been fired not so much by political opposition to the regime as by sectarian division.
"We want to affirm to the world that we don't have a problem between the government and the opposition ... There is a clear sectarian problem in Bahrain. There is division within society," Sheikh Khaled said.
"Today we are suffering from this problem between Sunnis and Shiites."
Sheikh Khaled told Al-Hayat that Manama had "proof on the way some parties inside and outside Bahrain have been plotting with Hizbollah", and that training for public protests had taken place in Lebanon.
But authorities in Bahrain have no intention of taking measures against Lebanese living in the kingdom, he said, although there were signs that the rulers were expanding their clampdown on protesters.
Meanwhile yesterday Mahmoud al Youssef, 50, the country's most prominent blogger and supporter of the protests, was detained, his family and a social media editor said.
Amira al Hussaini, a Middle East and North Africa editor at Global Voices Online, said police took the blogger into custody yesterday morning.
Mr al Youssef has for years criticised the Bahraini government for curbing freedom of expression, al Hussaini said.
He has consistently supported the protests and advocated political reform through dialogue between the government and the opposition.
"He is the godfather of the Bahraini blogging community," al Hussaini said of Mr al Youssef. who has been writing his blog in English.
"He's always called for tolerance and for Bahrainis to behave like one family."
Mr al Youssef's brother Jamal confirmed the arrest. He said his brother was arrested from his home in Duraz, an opposition stronghold north-west of Manama, at 3am.
"They rang the bell and Mahmoud answered the door," the blogger's brother said. "They told him they have a warrant for his arrest and took him away."
The arrest comes a day after Bahrain's parliament accepted the resignations of 11 of its members from Al Wefaq, a sign that the political crisis and sectarian divisions were deepening.
The 11 submitted their resignations last month over the deaths of anti-government protesters.
Human Rights Watch said yesterday that Bahrain authorities were harassing and isolating hospital patients wounded in recent protests.
The US-based group said it was concerned Bahrain forces were targeting hospital patients who were protesters or bystanders in scattered demonstrations that broke out last Friday as parts of a planned "Day of Rage" that police quickly quashed.
"Human Rights Watch has documented several cases in which patients with protest-related injuries were transferred to or sought treatment at Salmaniya and were then severely harassed or beaten," the organisation said.
* With reporting by Agence France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters