Bahrain Detains Opposition Leaders in Crackdown on Dissent

March 17, 2011 - 5:29 AM

bahrain

Shiite Bahraini youths haul debris into the streets on Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in an attempt to block or slow down pro-government forces they anticipated would roll into their Shiite Muslim village of Malkiya, southwest of the capital of Manama. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

Manama, Bahrain (AP) - Authorities detained at least six prominent opposition activists Thursday as the crackdown on dissent widened under martial law-style rule in the tiny Gulf nation, a rights group and relatives of the arrested said.

The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights said those taken into custody in the pre-dawn raids include Hassan Mushaima and Abdul Jalil al-Sangaece -- who were among 25 Shiite activists on trial on charges of trying to overthrow the nation's Sunni rulers.

The case was dropped in a bid to calm tensions after political unrest began last month, but the latest sweeps suggests authorities have abandoned efforts at dialogue and are trying to silence the opposition leaders.

Bahrain has imposed a three-month emergency rule that gives the military wide powers to battle the pro-democracy uprising that began in mid-February in the strategic nation, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

Increasingly, the struggle appears to be framed along sectarian lines: the Sunni monarchy and its backers using everything at their disposal to retain power, and Shiites hoping their overwhelming population advantage will be their most potent weapon to disrupt the country and bring the leadership to its knees.

Sunni authorities in the region also see Bahrain as an important stand against possible expansion of influence by Shiite power Iran.

The Youth Society group said the others detained include Shiite activists Abdul Wahad Hussein and Hassan Hadad and Sunni liberal leader Ibrahim Sharif, who had joined with Bahrain's majority Shiites to demand the Sunni monarchy loosen its grip on power.

"I saw men in black pointing a machine gun at my husband saying just one thing: `We are from the state security,'" said Sahrif's wife Farida Guhlam.

A senior opposition leader, Abdul Jalil Khalil, also said Abdul Hadi al-Mokhdar of Wafa was taken into custody.

"This is alarming and our priority is stop the bleeding of the country," Khalil said, adding that opposition is expecting more arrests of leaders. Al-Mokhdar and Hadad were also accused in the coup plot trial.

About 1,500 troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are in Bahrain as part of a Gulf task force to help the Sunni rulers. The move, however, has brought sharp criticism from close ally Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told CBS News that the introduction of Gulf forces was "the wrong track."

Authorities have imposed a 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew and restricted movement around the country -- limiting efforts by journalists to conduct firsthand reporting.

Parts of central Manama were under the full control of security forces on Thursday. Tanks and armored personnel carriers outfitted with machine guns watched over strategic intersections. Soldiers, wearing black ski masks and helmets, manned checkpoints and searched cars. Agents in civilian clothes patrolled wearing green vests and masks.

The remnants of the protesters' barricades -- barrels, plywood and trash bins -- were strewn over some streets.

Nearly all stores were closed and traffic was light. Very few people were walking the streets in the center of the capital.

On Wednesday, soldiers and riot police overran a protesters' camp in the capital Manama and clashed with Shiites in several areas of the country. At least five people were killed -- two policemen and three protesters -- in the assault on the encampment in Pearl Square, according to opposition groups and the government.

Meanwhile, doctors at the country's main hospital said the facility was controlled by security forces, blocking physicians from leaving.

The Salmaniya hospital complex has become a political hotspot. The mostly Shiite personnel are seen by authorities as possible protest sympathizers. The staff claim they must treat all who need care.

There have been moments of open anger. As overwhelmed teams treated the injured, many broke out in calls to topple the monarchy.

"We are under siege," said Nihad el-Shirawi, an intensive care doctor who said she had been working for 48 hours. "We cannot leave, and those on-call cannot come in."

Officials in the hospital said they took in 107 injured from Wednesday's violence. Nine were in critical condition, officials in the hospital said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters. The Salmaniya hospital also treated 322 people injured in clashes across the kingdom on Tuesday, the official said.

The government also is offering hints of a growing propaganda campaign. A statement Wednesday said forces conducted an operation to "cleanse" Pearl Square and later state TV called the demonstrators "saboteurs" and "outlaws."

Khalil believes the messages seek to bring sectarian civil war.

"And what do they think, that spreading this hate will break our will?" Khalil said. "Until now, we were defiant at Pearl Square. Now we are defiant in every village and town."

Several international bank branches and other businesses in Bahrain remained shut.

HSBC said it reopened just one of its four branches. Standard Chartered reopened two of its seven branches. Both banks shut all their offices Wednesday.

Bahrain's stock exchange reopened. It was up 1.3 percent by midday.

Bahrain's national carrier Gulf Air has canceled all flights to and from Iran and Iraq. Both countries, like Bahrain, have Shiite majorities. Flights to Iraq are scheduled to resume Friday, and those to Iran on Monday.

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Associated Press writers Brian Murphy and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.