Thousands of opposition protesters in Bahrain have clashed with police as Formula One Grand Prix practice sessions passed unhindered by the unrest, reports said.
Al Jazeera’s special correspondent, reporting from Manama, said around 10,000 people took to the streets on Saturday, even as police officials intensified a crackdown on protests in the city and surrounding villages.
“Your race is a crime,” chanted the protesters. “No, no to the blood Formula.”
The route from Manama to the race circuit has a huge police presence to prevent protesters demanding democratic reform from disrupting the event.
In one of the Shia villages, young protesters clashed with police officers armed with tear gas and pellet guns.
Skirmishes were reported in Sitra, Sanabis, Aali, Jidhafs and Buri, our correspondent said.
This weekend’s protests – now in its third day – sought to highlight the opposition’s pro-reform demands in the Gulf kingdom.
Clashes began when supporters of the February 14 Revolution Youth Coalition, a clandestine cyber-group that had called for a “Day of Rage”, tried to march on the former Pearl Square in Manama, the capital.
The Square was the focal point of anti-regime protests in February and March 2011.
Police fired tear gas and shotguns to disperse the protesters before they neared the area, witnesses said, but no casualties were reported.
The movement’s supporters – armed with petrol bombs and stones – clashed with police in Shia villages outside Manama and burnt tyres to block main roads, the sources said.
All of the violence was at a distance from the Sakhir race circuit, south of Manama, where practice sessions passed uninterrupted.
Meanwhile, thousands of supporters of the more moderate Shia opposition bloc Al-Wefaq marched peacefully on the Budaiya highway, 4km west of Manama, which links a string of Shia villages with the capital.
“F1 is just a mask to hide the crimes,” read their banners in English. Some waved flowers alongside Bahraini flags. “No to the illegitimate government.”
|Activists describe the Bahrain government as ‘illegitimate’ [Reuters]|
Security has been stepped up during days of protests to prevent clashes from marring the race.
Checkpoints were set up at major intersections, particularly on roads leading to the F1 circuit.
The world motorsport’s governing body the FIA and promoters Formula One Management said the race should take place on Sunday, despite the demonstrations.
Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, was rocked by month-long protests in early 2011.
They were crushed with the help of Gulf troops led by neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Bahrain said it was expelling three journalists working for Britain’s ITV television for “violating the laws and regulations” of the kingdom.
The measure was taken “to ensure preserving the national security of Bahrain,” an Information Affairs Authority statement said.