MANAMA // Bahrain's security forces enforced a state of emergency yesterday, arresting seven opposition leaders and breaking up a demonstration near the capital using tear gas and rubber bullets.
There were numerous reports of casualties in the clashes near the Manama suburbs of Daih, Sanabis and Jidhafs, but exact figures were not available.
Those arrested by Bahraini authorities yesterday included leaders of al Haq and al Wafa, two hardline Shiite organisations that last week called for the abolition of the monarchy. The head of the secular leftist party Waad was also detained.
A statement from the Bahrain Defence Force (BDF) said those jailed included "several leaders of the sedition ring who had called for the downfall of the regime and had intelligence contacts with foreign countries". It also said they had "incited the killing of citizens and the destruction of public and private property."
The arrests came a day after security forces cleared protesters from the Pearl Roundabout and razed their encampment. Three protesters and three police officers were killed in the violence.
Under a three-month state of emergency announced on Tuesday, public gatherings are banned and an overnight curfew is in place.
In Manama yesterday the streets were largely empty of police and soldiers and, with fewer roadblocks than in previous days, traffic was moving more freely. However, most businesses, large shopping malls and schools remained closed, with just a few small shops open.
Tanks were deployed at the foot of the King Faisal Highway and outside the embassy of Saudi Arabia, which this week sent 1,200 national guard troops to help the government to restore stability. As part of the GCC operation, the UAE also sent about 500 police officers.
Armoured vehicles also guarded Pearl Roundabout and the Salmaniya Medical Complex, where protesters have accused the security forces of blocking access and attacking the hospital's staff.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, yesterday called the takeover of hospitals and medical facilities by the security forces "a blatant violation of international law".
The human-rights group Amnesty International was also critical. "The government has decided that the way to deal with protests is through violent repression, a totally unsustainable position and one which sets an ominous example in a region where other governments are also facing popular calls for change," said Malcolm Smart, the group's director for the Middle East and North Africa.
In response to what they called excessive violence against unarmed civilians, Shiites in Saudi Arabia and Iraq also protested yesterday.
The Iranian government also condemned the violence and urged Saudi Arabia to withdraw its troops.
Western governments have urged their citizens to leave Bahrain. The British Embassy organised charter flights to Dubai, but they were later cancelled. A charter flight to the UK is expected to leave today.
Those arrested overnight on Wednesday included Hassan Mushaima and Abduljalil al Singace, leaders of al Haq. Also detained were Abdulwahab Hussain, the leader of al Wafa, and Ebrahim Sharif of Waad.
Mr Mushaima had only returned to Manama from abroad on February 26 after terrorism charges against him were dropped as part of an earlier peace offering from the government to the opposition. He visited Lebanon on his way back.
Mr al Singace was released in February after six months in jail.
Muneera Fakhro, a well-known political figure and member of Waad, described Mr Sharif's arrest as very worrying.
"It is not OK at all to arrest the chairman of our society. It worries us and we don't know what other steps will be taken," she said, adding that the Waad office headquarters had recently been vandalised. "The main victim is the economy. Foreigners are leaving and schools are closed. This is not a normal life."
Details of the arrests came from the largest Shiite opposition group, Al Wefaq, which is calling for a democratic system in which the cabinet is made up of elected officials rather than the king's appointments. Wefaq said none of its members had been arrested.
Khalil Ibrahim al Marzooq, the former first deputy speaker of Bahrain's parliament who resigned with all other Wefaq MPs last month, said the arrests would only inflame the situation and make any dialogue with the government more difficult.
"This will ignite people," he said, adding that it would only "complicate" the situation because of the number of opposition activists already in detention.
Al Wefaq said it was considering taking action against the government's use of force in either the UN or the International Criminal Court .
An expert on Gulf politics observing the current situation in Bahrain described the arrests as a "dangerous step".
King Hamad and the BDF commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Sheikh Khalifa Al Khalifa, toured some of the areas within the network of protester roadblocks surrounding Pearl Roundabout, Bahrain News Agency said.
The military also announced a relaxation of the curfew hours to between 8pm and 4am between Bahrain Financial Harbour and Shaikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa Highway. To the west, a curfew between 4pm and 4am remained in place in the neighourhoods either side of a 4km stretch of the King Faisal Highway.
* With additional reporting by Zoi Constantine, Reuters and Agence France-Presse