x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Bahrain Grand Prix runs smoothly after week of protests

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was among 10,500 spectators in the main grandstand to watch Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull Racing win the race.

MANAMA // The Bahrain Grand Prix went off without incident yesterday after a week of protests away from the Formula One circuit called attention to the continuing demands for reform in the kingdom.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa was among 10,500 spectators in the main grandstand and a smaller audience watched from other platforms as Sebastian Vettel, the reigning F1 world champion, led the race from start to finish.

The country's Shiite opposition had called for the race, held behind layers of security at a time of rising tensions in the Sunni-ruled country, to be called off.

The most radical elements of the opposition, the February 14 Youth Movement, used text messaging and social networks to urge protesters to hold fresh demonstrations to coincide with the race.

Right after the race, protesters burnt tyres on the main road linking the capital to the Bahrain Inernational Circuit, Sakhir witnesses said, as security forces stopped dozens of others from marching towards the now demolished Pearl Square in Manama.

Earlier, activists used burning tyres and rubbish to try to block roads to the circuit. Bahrain's interior ministry said "all roads and routes leading to the circuit were safe and open."

Police were out in strength patrolling Manama and roads to the track. Helicopters flew low over the capital and armoured vehicles were deployed across the city, witnesses said.

Bahrain insists the protests are isolated, but tensions mounted this week as demonstrators took advantage of the world media spotlight on the event.

The grand prix in Bahrain was cancelled last year after protests erupted and 35 people were killed during a government crackdown.

In a statement before the race, King Hamad pledged he was committed to reform.

"I also want to make clear my personal commitment to reform and reconciliation in our great country. The door is always open for sincere dialogue among all our people," he said.

His announcement came as police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters who responded by hurling rocks and fire bombs while chanting "Down with Hamad," witnesses said.

In protests that lasted through the night and into today, demonstrators called for the release of the Shiite activist Abdulhadi Al Khawaja, on hunger strike since early February.

State news agency BNA reported that Mr Khawaja was in good health and that the Danish ambassador had visited him in hospital yesterday, as he is a dual citizen of Bahrain and Denmark.