Shiites accuse race of being a public relations ploy to cover up political unrest, and vow to step up protests during this weekend's event. Elizabeth Dickinson reports
Clashes erupt in Bahrain on eve of F1 race
Clashes between protesters and security forces erupted in several Shiite villages across Bahrain yesterday as authorities vowed to ensure security at this weekend's Formula One Grand Prix.
Opposition supporters have called for stepped-up protests during the race weekend to demand reform and an end to what they say is the economic and political marginalisation of the Shiite community on the island.
Bahraini authorities and F1 officials, however, say that the high-profile race will be a boost to the country's economy and efforts to end the political crisis.
Jean Todt, the head of F1's governing body, wrote to Bahraini rights groups that "sport, and the F1 Grand Prix, can have a positive and healing effect in situations where conflict, social unrest and tensions are causing distress", according to a copy of the letter obtained by Reuters.
Formula One is a unifying force for Bahrain despite continuing unrest in the country, the circuit chairman, Zayed Alzayani, said yesterday.
Mr Alzayani said that security arrangements for the event were the same as last year and suggested that any protesters who resorted to violence would be guilty of 'terrorism'.
"I am totally against violence. No matter what cause you have, you have no right to disrupt the normal cause of life for others in the country," he said. "That's not democracy, that's terrorism. there's no two ways about it."
The unrest comes as talks continue among representatives of all the island's political groups. The talks, known as the National Dialogue, are aimed at resolving a political crisis that began in early 2011 when protesters, inspired by the Arab Spring, took to the streets.
A group of 27 representatives from across Bahraini political society have held bi-weekly meetings since February aimed at drawing up proposals for reform.
But the continuing protests have exposed a growing divide within the mainly-Shiite opposition over how to press forward with demands for change.
At demonstrations yesterday, many protesters carried signs demanding the cancellation of the Grand Prix, as the government did in 2011 at the height of unrest.
"The protesters believe that F1 is political support, and the government will use it as PR [to say] that nothing is wrong in Bahrain," said Said Yousif Al Muhafhda, head of documentation at the Bah- rain Centre for Human Rights.
The mainstream political opposition groups involved in the National Dialogue, however, say they are not against the race and want their demonstrations to remain peaceful.
"The mainstream opposition has one priority, which is the political solution and we're focusing on that," said Khalil Al Marzouq, spokesman for the largest Shiite opposition bloc, Al Wefaq. "We have no position for or against F1."
Al Wefaq and four smaller opposition groups have planned pro-democracy demonstrations for the weekend. The five groups said that they hoped to stress "the necessity to adopt an urgent political project to change the current situation in Bahrain".
Meanwhile, the most extreme unrest in recent days has been carried out by a youth group calling itself the February 14 Coalition, after the date the country's uprising began in 2011. In recent days, the group has blocked roads with tyres and hurled Molotov cocktails.
The US Embassy has warned its citizens that the group's new tactics could include using improvised explosive devices to disrupt traffic.
A coalition of pro-government political societies, also participants in the National Dialogue, issued a statement yesterday denouncing "terrorist acts" that they said "revealed the extent of threat to civil peace". The statement called for the Ministry of the Interior to "restore stability".
Qualifying for the race begins tomorrow, with the Grand Prix scheduled for Sunday.
* With additional reporting from Reuters