Bahraini security forces detain 1,600 dissidents

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The Independent Online
The security forces in the Gulf state of Bahrain were yesterday reported to have detained more than 1,600 people after more than a week of unrest among the Emirate's Shia Muslims. Witnesses in the capital, Manama, said they heard bursts of automa tic weapons fire yesterday morning and saw armoured vehicles and black-uniformed special forces deployed around Shia districts.

Amnesty International said in London it was concerned that people arrested "could be at risk of torture while in custody". The human rights group said it was also investigating the possibility that two people may have been killed unlawfully by the security forces. Five civilians and four policemen are said to have died in clashes, although the authorities have given no official figures.

Violence broke out after the arrest of Sheikh Ali Salman, a young Shia preacher who received his theological training in the Iranian holy city of Qom.and who has campaigned for what he calls "reform" in the emirate. He supported a petition recently sent to the Emir of Bahrain calling for the restoration of the island's parliament, which was suspended in 1975.

Sheikh Salman's detention set off demonstrations and clashes in Shia villages and in the poorer districts of Manama. The Information Minister, Tariq Alomoayyed, in his only comment on the riots, said yesterday it was "natural that many of those under investigation will be released but equally natural that some will be out on trial".

The disorders coincided with an important meeting of the six-nation Gulf Co-Operation Council at which border disputes between Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia were under discussion. Reporters covering the summit yesterday saw smoke from burning tyres andsmelt tear gas not far from the meeting. Troops and police were deployed to protect the leaders, who were also discussing security in the Gulf states and their troubled relations with Iran.

The riots served to focus attention on Iran because Bahrain's Shia Muslims, who are thought to number up to 60 per cent of the 500,000 population, share the Iranian version of Islam. Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifa family belongs to the mainstream Sunni practice of the faith.

The Iranian government has carefully refrained from official comment on the trouble, but has allowed free rein to "Islamic" opposition movements based in Tehran.

Yesterday one opposition leader, Mohammed Ali Al-Mahfuz, issued an appeal from Tehran for a "revolution" in Bahrain. The emirate lies just off the Saudi Arabian coast and is an important air and naval base for western forces in the Gulf.

Diplomats in the region believed the Iranian foreign ministry did not favour an overt policy of subversion towards Bahrain because Iran is already entangled in a potentially dangerous dispute with the United Arab Emirates over three strategic islands further south in the Gulf.

But radicals within the Iranian government were keen to exploit any chance to foment disorder among Shia Muslims in Bahrain and in the neighbouring eastern province oilfields of Saudi Arabia, they said.