Protesters In Bahrain Monitor Events In Libya
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We go, now, to Bahrain, where protests have grown, and in the last few days, have remained peaceful. Today, the country's king traveled out of the country to confer with another monarch, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Before Bahrain's monarch left home, he began releasing political prisoners, as protesters had demanded. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from the capital, Manama.
PETER KENYON: The freeing of prisoners has been a basic demand since the unrest here began, and the government has followed through on its promise, releasing some detainees in the early hours of the morning. The freed men included some two dozen accused, last year, of plotting to overthrow the government. Their supporters say the charges are politically motivated.
(Soundbite of chanting in a foreign language)
KENYON: Bahraini Shiites have been anxious to take advantage of a rare burst of worldwide attention to their problems in this tiny island kingdom lodged between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But they're also well aware of what their fellow protesters are facing in other Mid East and North African countries.
(Soundbite of speech in foreign language through loudspeaker)
KENYON: While the anti-government speeches continued from the main stage at Pearl Circle last night, much of the crowd grew quiet and gathered around several large projector screens when Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi began to speak. Some said the British PR firm managing media relations for the royal family couldn't have planned it better. Gaddafi was making Bahrain's leaders look good by comparison.
As the mercurial Gaddafi called on soldiers and his supporters to attack demonstrators, Bahrainis shook their heads in disbelief and expressed sympathy for the Libyan people. One woman, named Fatima, voiced a common hope that such craziness would not spread.
FATIMA: Gaddafi, what he is doing for his people, and really something, nobody will accept that. And I hope our government will not do that for our people.
(Soundbite of singing and chanting)
KENYON: Earlier in the day, the biggest anti-government rally yet chanted and sang its way down a main boulevard in the capital, heading toward Pearl Circle. In the crowd, there was a small but symbolically important sign that Bahrain is not Libya. Marching along with the protestors was a group of army officers, apparently just as shocked as ordinary Bahrainis that the military had opened fire on unarmed demonstrators last week. This officer spoke to the Euronews Channel.
Unidentified Man (Bahrain Army Officer): (Through Translator) We decided that our job is to protect people and not to beat them up. The weapons that have been used against the people are weapons of shame. These weapons should be used to protect the people, and not be used against them.
(Soundbite of chanting and protest)
KENYON: The army has stayed away as the demonstrations have grown, but anti-government protestors are not the only ones taking to the streets. Sunday night saw an extremely large pro-government rally at the grand mosque, featuring calls for calm, dialogue and reform. Both sides seem eager to have their rallies portrayed as the biggest.
Yesterday a government official screamed at a wire service reporter for allegedly under-reporting the size of the pro-government rally. But analysts say in the end, the relative numbers pale beside one overriding fact: there are huge numbers of passionate people on both sides. And this tiny island is clearly divided, no matter how frequently people insist they are not Sunni or Shiite, but Bahraini.
Those divisions, and the increasing pressure from Saudi Arabia, which fears a Shiite uprising could spread to its own largely Shiite Eastern province, are making a solution to this crisis very tricky. Saudi state television reported that he Saudi king has already announced a sharp boost in economic benefits for Saudis, especially young people. It's the latest sign that the world's largest oil producer is feeling increasingly hemmed in by the unrest spreading around it.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Manama.
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