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Middle east

Shiite protesters besiege meeting at Bahrain’s government palace

Video by Claire PRYDE

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-03-07

Thousands of Shiite-led opposition demonstrators in Bahrain blocked the palace where a cabinet meeting was taking place, but failed to shake the government in the tiny Gulf nation’s third week of protests.

AFP - Thousands of demonstrators massed on Sunday at Manama's Al-Qudaibiya Palace, where Bahrain's cabinet meets, chanting slogans against the tiny but strategic Gulf state's government.           

White-helmeted police with riot shields stood behind one gate, looking on as the flag-waving demonstrators chanted "Down Hamad! Down Hamad!", in reference to Bahrain's King Hamad.
             
"The people want to topple the regime!" the protesters roared, shaking their fists towards the light pink palace with its onion-shaped, pearl-coloured dome.
             
The kingdom's cabinet meets at the palace on Sundays, and the state news agency BNA said that the gathering went ahead as usual, despite the protests outside.
             
"The government supports freedom of expression, in a peaceful way, which is guaranteed by the constitution," Kamal Ahmed, the minister for cabinet affairs, said according to BNA.
             
But the cabinet warned against "harming the public, commercial and economic interests," he said, adding that "jeopardising the interests of the people... goes against the calls for calm and dialogue."
             
Crown Prince Salman, tasked by his father the king with opening talks with the opposition, said later on Sunday that dialogue is the only way forward.
             
"We have to give ourself a chance for dialogue in a civilised way," he told Bahrain TV. "There is no way out of this crisis except dialogue."
             
The Gulf archipelago of Bahrain, a strategic US ally and home of the US Fifth Fleet, has been shaken by demonstrations calling for political reform since February 14.
             
"Hey Khalifa, get out! Get out!" demonstrators chanted Sunday, referring to the country's prime minister of four decades, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has an office at the palace and has been a target of demonstrations.
             
"We want the prime minister to go," said Alaa al-Nasr, a 24-year-old demonstrator.
              
Another protester, 42-year-old Osama al-Nuwain, agreed.
             
"It’s mainly against Sheikh Khalifa -- they want this government to go," he said.
             
Protesters also chanted for the 2002 constitution, which established an appointed upper house that has veto powers over the decisions of the elected chamber, to be scrapped.
             
"The 2002 constitution falls for the sake of Bahrain," they chorused in a refrain that rhymes in Arabic.
             
Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni Muslim al-Khalifa family but has a Shiite Muslim majority which has been at the forefront of the protests.
             
"Our problem is a political one," Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of the Shiite opposition Islamic National Accord Association, or Al-Wefaq, told the crowd of protesters.
             
"We need political reforms -- lead the people to elect their government, and not a government that remains on our chests for 40 years, with all its failure," he said, referring to the premier’s four-decade tenure.
             
As in a speech on Friday, Salman also emphasised Sunni-Shiite harmony.
             
"We want a home which has security for Sunnis and security for Shiites, and dignity for Sunnis and dignity for Shiites," he said.
             
"We want to get rid of Al-Khalifa dictatorship, but we don't want to be under a Shiite dictatorship, or a dictatorship of a party," Salman said.
             
Residents of Hamad Town, south of Manama, said police had intervened to break up Sunni-Shiite clashes late on Thursday, the first outbreak of sectarian violence since the protests began.
             
The government warned on Sunday against sectarianism, saying "acts that perpetuate sectarianism and sedition are rejected by the people and the religion," BNA reported.
             
Opposition groups have stopped short of demanding outright regime change, instead calling for major reforms including an elected parliament "with full legislative powers."
             
"We came here because we don’t want this government," said Nawal Hassan, a 29-year-old protester at the palace, who wore the traditional black abaya robe and veil, with a Bahraini flag around her neck like a cape.
             
"We don’t want them! Let all the world know," she said.
             
Demonstrators continue to keep vigil in hundreds of tents at Manama's Pearl Square, which has become the epicentre of the anti-government protests.
             
Thousands of people on Friday made a human chain between the square and the al-Fateh Sunni mosque six kilometres (3.7 miles) away, calling for the removal of the government and sectarian harmony.

 

Date created : 2011-03-07

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