Protesters In Bahrain Driven From Main Square
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
A day after issuing a state of emergency, the Bahraini government launched a full-out assault on protesters that appeared to crush a key uprising in the Middle East. In a symbolic blow, riot police took back the Pearl traffic circle, which demonstrators have occupied for most of the past five weeks.
NPR's Frank Langfitt watched the assault, and he filed this report.
FRANK LANGFITT: After dawn, a long line of armored personnel carriers and tanks rolled down King Faisal Highway along the Persian Gulf.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
LANGFITT: Helicopter gunships swept in from the west. Police in white helmets carrying plastic shields marched towards the traffic circle, firing tear gas.
Overcome by the fumes, a young mechanical engineer who jokingly called himself Allah, the Arabic word for God, retreated to a sidewalk to rub his eyes with onions and lamented what was happening to the revolution he'd fought for.
ALLAH: I don't know. We are innocent people. We are peaceful here, only demonstrating. We are demanding basic rights, freedom, equal opportunity, stop discrimination.
LANGFITT: Allah is a Shiite Muslim. They're the majority here in Bahrain. But Shia say they suffer systematic job discrimination at the hands of the ruling minority, who are Sunni. Shia protesters have pressed for a fully democratic parliament and a constitutional monarchy.
Allah says he's angry that Western nations have encouraged protesters in North Africa, but seemed to side with the ruling royal family here.
ALLAH: Shame on you, Obama. Shame on you, Europeans. You are silent. You are the ones who are supporting the dictators here.
LANGFITT: Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, quote, "We're alarmed by the situation in Bahrain, and we've spoken very forcefully against the security crackdown, in fact, at the highest levels of the government," end quote.
Bahrain is an important strategic ally of the United States. Much of the world's oil passes nearby in the Persian Gulf. And the island is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Allah stood with a group of protesters armed with sticks and pipes. One of them, a middle-aged man named Abdul Rasul(ph), criticized the king for calling in forces yesterday from neighboring countries to help crush the rebellion.
Mr. ABDUL RASUL: He's killing us, and he brought troops from Saudi Arabia. We don't have any weapons. What we have only like that. Here they come. Yes, they come.
LANGFITT: And with that, police forced the protesters out of the traffic circle.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
LANGFITT: Demonstrators said police used rubber bullets and bird shot. Rifle fire was also heard. A few protesters hurled Molotov cocktails, though not very effectively. The government said demonstrators struck and killed two cops with a car. Protesters said at least five people had died by mid-afternoon.
But getting the injured to Salmaniya Medical Complex, Bahrain's largest hospital, became nearly impossible. A doctor there said police sealed off the facility and kept most patients out.
EMI(ph): Our ambulances were not allowed to go and get them, and none of ambulances were allowed to come in.
LANGFITT: The doctor, who gave only her first name of Emi, spoke from the emergency room. She said police forced their way into the hospital this morning.
EMI: One of the police lift up his shotgun into my face and asked me to keep the door open. And I informed him that this is a hospital door and there is air conditioning and it has to be closed. And he shouted at me back that: Keep the door open.
LANGFITT: Dr. Emi said police claimed they were protecting physicians. But she suspects the government wanted to disperse patients across the city to make it harder for foreign journalists to report on casualties.
Sources in Shiite neighborhoods said the violence extended well beyond the traffic circle. One man reported police shooting at anyone who stepped out on the street, though there were no immediate reports that Saudi troops, who entered the kingdom yesterday, participated in the violence.
The government says it will now enforce a 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Manama, Bahrain.
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