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Middle East
Protesters retake Bahrain centre
Anti-government protesters reoccupy Pearl roundabout after troops and police withdraw from protest site in capital.
Last Modified: 20 Feb 2011 03:52 GMT


                            
Thousands of protesters have reoccupied the Pearl Roundabout in the Bahraini capital, Manama, after troops and riot police retreated from the symbolic centre of their anti-government uprising.

The cheering protesters carrying Bahraini flags, flowers and signs that said "Peaceful, peaceful" marched
to the traffic circle on Saturday. They chanted, "We are victorious".

Protesters kissed the ground in joy and took pictures of about 60 police vehicles leaving the area.

Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the crown prince, had earlier in the day ordered the military to withdraw, saying that the police would now be responsible for enforcing order, the Bahrain News Agency reported.

Soon after the crown prince's directive, protesters attempted to stream back to the roundabout, but were beaten back by the police. According to the Reuters news agency, about 80 protesters were taken to a hospital after being hit by rubber bullets or teargas.

The protesters, however, were successful in the next attempt, after riot police withdrew as well from the traffic circle.

Al Jazeera's web producer reports that doctors are preparing to receive casualities at the city's main hospital

The Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of the protests, had been the scene of heavy-handed security crackdown.

Several demonstrators were killed and many injured as security forces cleared the area of protesters in a pre-dawn attack on Thursday morning.

It was the scene of shootings again on Friday night when troops opened fire with live rounds on protesters.

An Al Jazeera correspondent in Bahrain said the government order for withdrawal of security forces from the roundabout was aimed at starting negotiations.

But anger remained high on the streets after the bloodshed and many protesters were against talks.

"Demands have hardened from the beginning of the week. Some say what they want is a change of government, some say that the prime minister should be sacked and others say that the king should go as well. 

"People are saying that given the people who have died and the number injured they will continue to come here ... many are saying they are not going to leave as they have not got the reform they were asking for. 

"All of them are asking for constitutional reform. The opposition are asking for a constitutional monarchy, like in the UK or Australia," our correspondent said.

Amid the turmoil, the General Union of Bahraini Workers has called a strike from Sunday.

'Time for dialogue'

The crown prince had on Friday called for a dialogue to end the crisis, but the opposition was quick to reject the offer, saying no dialogue can begin with the ruling family until the army had been withdrawn from the streets.

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Ibrahim Mattar, a member of the Wefaq bloc which quit parliament on Thursday, said his party did not believe there was a "serious will for dialogue because the military is in the streets".

Sheikh Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, the king of Bahrain, had earlier asked the crown prince, to start a national dialogue "with all parties".

Also on Saturday, Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, called for the dialogue process to begin "without delay". She also said that she was "deeply concerned" by reports of the use of violence by security forces, and called on all sides to show "restraint".

US condemns violence

Barack Obama, the US president, discussed the situation with Bahrain's king in a telephone call on Friday, asking him to hold those responsible for the violence accountable.

He said in a statement that Bahrain must respect the "universal rights'" of its people and embrace "meaningful reform".

"I am deeply concerned about reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen.

"The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur," he said.

"The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests and to respect the rights of their people."

Country profile: Bahrain 

On Friday, thousands observed funerals for the four people killed in the pre-dawn raid on the protest encampment at Pearl roundabout a day earlier.

Riot police had used clubs, tear gas and bird-shot guns to break up the crowd of protesters. They also tore down their tents, and blockaded the roundabout with police vehicles and barbed wire. More than 200 were wounded in that raid.

At the funerals on Friday, many chanted slogans against Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family.

They said that while they would earlier have settled for the prime minister being sacked, they were now demanding the fall of the entire ruling government, including the royal family.

Mourners told Al Jazeera that they were both grief-stricken and angry at the heavy-handedness of the police, and that they were demanding that the international community take notice of what they call the brutality of the security forces.

As Friday prayers commenced, Sheikh Issa Qassem, a prominent Bahraini Shia Muslim religious leader, delivering his sermon in a northwestern village, described Thursday's violence as a "massacre".

Our correspondent reported that Qassem said the government was attempting to create a "sectarian divide" between Sunnis and Shias. He advocated peaceful protests, saying "violence is the way of the government", and that protesters should not espouse violent actions.

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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