(dawnwires.com) Thousands of antigovernment protesters in Bahrain blocked access to the financial district in Manama, the capital, on Sunday, preventing many workers from getting to their offices and pushing back the police who tried to disperse them. It was the most serious challenge to the royal family that rules Bahrain since protests began last month.
“This was a very, very big day,” Mohammad al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said by telephone from Pearl Square, the epicenter for protests in central Manama. “Now the protesters control these streets. There are walls of rubble keeping out the police and armed groups. People say they will not sleep tonight.”
The latest protests occurred a day after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stopped in Bahrain and warned the Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain for two centuries, that it must go beyond the “baby steps” of reform to meet the economic and political demands sweeping much of the Arab world.
The demonstrations on Sunday occurred on King Faisal Highway at the entrance to Manama’s financial district. In a statement, the government said the violence began when “a group of protesters attacked unarmed police officers, resulting in one police officer being stabbed and another sustaining a serious head injury.”
“Police then sought to disperse approximately 350 protesters by using tear gas in order to clear the road,” the government said. “The Ministry of Interior is currently undergoing operations to reopen the King Faisal Highway.”
By Sunday evening, witnesses said, the highway remained essentially closed to traffic and was in the hands of demonstrators.
“It is like a ghost town with the highway closed and the financial district closed,” Hussein Muhammad, a bookstore owner and activist, said by telephone. “Thousands of people came all morning, and hundreds were injured.” Two demonstrators suffered serious head injuries, witnesses said.
“We want a new constitution, fair and free elections and a government elected directly by the people,” Mohammad Mattar, an engineer and member of the Waad pro-reform movement, said by telephone. “These are not sectarian demands, but political ones. We want a constitutional monarchy, a clear relationship between the ruling family and society. But the security forces are trying to create a sectarian divide.”