Protesters clash with police, throw firebombs before Formula One race — Bahrain
Tens of thousands of anti-government protesters demonstrated Friday against the staging of the Formula One race in Bahrain this weekend, as the government prepared to host the biggest international sporting event since a deadly crackdown on mainly Shiite protesters early last year.
Police fired tear gas at rock-throwing protesters at a huge demonstration along one of the country’s main highways, according to activists who took part in the march. Clashes also took place in the capital, Manama, between security services and protesters, and in villages close to Bahrain’s Grand Prix circuit, opposition members said.
Protesters chanted “Down Hamad” in reference to the country’s ruler, King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, and “No, no to the Formula blood.”
The government hopes to stage a successful Formula One race to restore its tarnished international reputation and persuade the outside world that calm has returned to Bahrain, whose Sunni rulers violently put down mass protests last year, largely by the small island’s Shiite majority. Clashes between demonstrators and regime security forces have continued almost daily.
Last year, Bahrain canceled the Formula One event because of unrest.
Violence has intensified this week ahead of the race, due to take place on Sunday. The opposition says police have fanned out across the island to prevent protests from reaching the capital, Manama, and the Formula One circuit, located about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of the capital.
Security forces have escalated their crackdown on Shiite protesters this week in the villages surrounding the capital, using shotguns and tear gas to disperse rallies, according to human rights groups and Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s biggest opposition group.
Up to 60 activists have been arrested this week by police, local human-rights organizations say.
The government expects protesters to attempt to disrupt Sunday’s race. But Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa confirmed Friday the race would proceed undisturbed.
“We don’t feel that they [protests] will infringe on the procedures of the race itself,” a spokesman for the Bahraini government said.
Formula One’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, said last week the race will go ahead, ending weeks of speculation it would be called off over safety fears and concerns that political protests could interrupt the event.
Protesters are expected to try to disrupt the Grand Prix race on Sunday by demonstrating near the circuit and unfurling banners in the crowd carrying antigovernment slogans, Bahrain Human Rights Society secretary general Abdulla Alderazi said.
“People think the Formula One is helping the PR of the government to show that everything is fine in Bahrain,” he said. “It’s not like that yet.”
Already, two members of Force India, a Formula One team, have left Bahrain after being caught up in a gasoline bomb incident Wednesday between protesters and police. Force India said on its website that it will miss a second practice session Friday because of “logistical reasons”
“There’s certainly a risk of violent disruption, and that seems like a lose-lose situation that would just take Bahrain into further escalation [of violence],” said Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House in London.
U.K. Labour party leader Ed Miliband said Friday the race should be canceled “in the light of human rights abuses” against protesters.
Senior Wefaq member Khalil Almarzooq said the police have used excessive force against protesters, and violence could escalate over the coming days. “Security forces are using… shotguns and tear gas—there are lots of wounded people,” he said.
On Thursday, Wefaq released graphic images of what it said were 23 protesters wounded by shotgun pellets in clashes this week. It said Friday the number of shotgun injuries had climbed to almost 50.
Asked about use of shotguns by police, a spokesman for the government said only that security forces had to take “the appropriate measures” to confront violent protests. “We have an obligation to preserve the security in the country,” the spokesman said.