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Middle east

Royals seek dialogue as protesters press demands

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-02-21

Protesters gathered in Manama's Pearl Square again on Sunday as Bahrain's ruling royal family sought to open talks with the opposition. Opposition leaders, however, are demanding a "real constitutional monarchy" and the resignation of the government.

AFP - Bahraini protesters camped out in Manama's Pearl Square on Sunday as police held back amid growing pressure on the Sunni Muslim ruling family to open meaningful talks with the Shiite-led opposition.

"The night passed off without any problems," said Tahar, a student who had stayed up all night with dozens of other youngsters to guard the central square, which has been the focal point of the demonstrations that have rocked the small but strategic Gulf kingdom since February 14.

"We are frightened that the security forces will launch another surprise attack like they did on Thursday," he said, referring to a nocturnal police raid to clear the square which left four people dead.

Protesters flocked back to the square on Saturday after the army, which had deployed on the streets of the capital following Thursday's raid, was ordered to return to base.

Riot police fired tear gas in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse the demonstrators but then withdrew as Crown Prince Salman, the deputy commander of armed forces, ordered police and troops alike to hold back.

Bahrain's main trade union said it was calling off its general strike from Monday, saying its demand for the right to demonstrate peacefully had been heeded.

"In the light of the army's withdrawal and respect of the right to demonstrate peacefully, the general union for labour syndicates has decided to suspend the general strike and return to work on Monday," the union said.

The heir to the throne has been tasked by his father King Hamad with launching a sweeping dialogue with the opposition.

Protestors gather in Manama's Pearl Square again
But emboldened by a wave of uprisings in the Arab world that has swept the strongmen of both Tunisia and Egypt from power, the opposition has raised its stakes, demanding a "real constitutional monarchy" and the resignation of the government.

Prime Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, an uncle of the king, has held office ever since independence from Britain in 1971 and is widely despised by the opposition.

"The government that was unable to protect its people must quit and those responsible for the massacres must be judged," said Abdel Jalil Khalil Ibrahim, head of the parliamentary bloc of the main Shiite opposition group, the Islamic National Accord Association.

"The opposition does not refuse dialgue but they ask for a platform that is favorable to dialogue."

Bahrain is the base of the US Fifth Fleet and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon spoke with the crown prince on Saturday urging him to respect human rights and launch "meaningful" reform, the White House said.

"As a long-standing partner of Bahrain, the United States believes that the stability of Bahrain depends upon respect for the universal rights of the people of Bahrain, and a process of meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis," a statement said.

Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, voiced its "absolute rejection" of any foreign meddling in Bahraini affairs, pledging to stand by its tiny neighbour.

Riyadh called on the opposition to heed government calls for dialogue, an appeal that was echoed by the United Arab Emirates.

UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan urged the Bahraini people to "respond favourably to the appeal for dialogue by the crown prince."

Prince Salman acknowledged the need for reform but called for calm before the launch of dialogue.

"There are clear messages from the Bahraini people... about the need for reforms," he said in a television interview on Saturday.

A large banner erected by the protesters in Pearl Square insisted: "We do not accept dialogue with any of the murderers."

Another read "Khalifa, Go!" in reference to the veteran prime minister.

EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said it was vital that the promised dialogue "should begin without delay."

In a telephone call to the crown prince on Saturday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had expressed "the UK's deep concern about the situation and strong disapproval of the use of live ammunition against protesters."

Bahrain's unrest has cast doubt on next month's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix, with Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone saying it may be moved to a later date in the calendar.


Date created : 2011-02-20


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