x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Bahrain protesters return after troops are pulled out

Attempts to ease tensions 'positive' as Bahrain crown prince orders stand-down.

Protesters celebrate their return to the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain.
Protesters celebrate their return to the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain.

MANAMA // Tens of thousands of Bahrainis returned to Pearl Square in the centre of the capital yesterday after the kingdom's crown prince ordered security forces to leave the area.

The government ordered tanks and armoured personnel carriers positioned around the square to return to their bases.

"That's a very positive step," said Jasim Hussain, a member of al Wefaq, the main opposition bloc that quit parliament on Thursday. "They're trying to ease the tensions. I don't know whether it will be sufficient."

Al Wefaq had earlier rejected the king's offer of dialogue. They said troops must be withdrawn first, among other conditions.

Protesters approached the square from various directions yesterday, after it was sealed off on Thursday. Riot police at first fired tear gas but they were ultimately unsuccessful at holding back crowds that swelled into the thousands, as they cheered and ran in to the square. By late afternoon, men, women and children had packed the large traffic roundabout and spilled into surrounding streets.

Some people handed out flowers and cakes while others began erecting tents and establishing food distribution points and medical treatment areas.

"I came back here with my family because I need a future for my babies," said Zuhair Ibrahim, who was seated on the ground with his two sons, aged two and four.

Mohammed Nimah, a 39-year-old banker from Manama who said he was one of the organisers of the protests, said the crowds were all there "under the Bahraini flag".

"We died to come here and we are going to stay," he said. "Re-entering the square was the first step to victory and was a clear message to the government that you can't kill people and take their rights. We come in peace."

Mansour al Jamri, the editor in chief of the Bahraini newspaper Al Wasat, described yesterday's events as a "momentous day".

"No one could imagine that the youth could achieve this," said Mr al Jamri, who was standing at the at the centre of the square by the large, white monument to the country's pearl-diving heritage.

“They have forced an agenda of change and forced the government to come down to discuss a political agenda in a serious way.”

On Friday, troops opened fire on marchers streaming towards the square, injuring more than 80.

At least four people were killed and 230 wounded on Thursdy when they opened fire with tear gas, rubber bullets and buckshot on protesters who had been camping out in Pearl Square. After security forces were withdrawn yesterday, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa ordered them to avoid demonstrators.

The crown prince, who is deputy commander of the armed forces, ordered “all security forces to immediately withdraw from assembly areas”. He also asked the “crowds to leave” to start a “new phase of national action that would bring together all parties”.

A few hours earlier, on state television, the crown prince had announced “a day of mourning for our lost sons”.

Yesterday, as dusk fell and people lined up for evening prayer at Pearl Square, a group lit candles for those killed in the past week. There was jubiliation among many protesters, but some still expressed concerns about their safety.

“I am not feeling safe any more,” said Delal Zayed, 33, from Isa Town, as a helicopter hovered overhead. “The trust between the government and the people is gone and there is a feeling that they might attack again.”

On Friday, King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa offered a national dialogue with all parties to try to end the turmoil in which at least six people have been killed and hundreds wounded.

The US president, Barack Obama, spoke to the king on Friday, urging the government to show restraint and respect the rights of its people.

zconstantine@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse