Bahrain? It's perfectly peaceful, claims Formula 1 chief Ecclestone

Grand Prix to go ahead as planned, despite fears protesters will try to disrupt the event

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The Independent Online

After weeks of doubt amid security concerns over an upsurge in clashes between authorities and anti-government protesters, it was confirmed yesterday the Bahrain Grand Prix will go ahead as planned at the end of this month.

The president of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), Jean Todt, announced the decision, despite teams' fears over safety. One race team principal, who did not wish to be identified, told The Independent it is "inconceivable that there will not be some sort of attempt to disrupt [the race]".

The FIA, the governing body of motor sport and Formula One, said in a statement it had been monitoring events in the Gulf state, which has seen an upsurge in anti-government protests ahead of the planned race, sparking security concerns.

However, it said it is "satisfied that all the proper security measures are in place for the running of a Formula One World Championship event in Bahrain" and the event will therefore "go ahead as scheduled".

Pictures appeared on social networking websites yesterday showing images of Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone being burnt on the streets of Bahrain in protest against the decision. But Mr Ecclestone insisted that all is "quiet" in the Gulf nation.

"All the teams are happy to be there," Mr Ecclestone said. "There's nothing happening. I know people who live there and it's all very quiet and peaceful." The FIA statement was released just before Mr Ecclestone met race teams in Shanghai, which hosts the Chinese Grand Prix this weekend.

Some of those present criticised the glibness with which some motor sport parties had addressed matters in Bahrain, most notably the plight of the jailed Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who began a hunger strike two months ago after being jailed for life for his role in last year's pro-democracy protests.

Human rights activists in the island nation say that clashes in the streets have trebled as protesters turn out to support Mr al-Khawaja.

Clashes between protesters and police have been an almost daily event across the country. Thousands of demonstrators attended the funeral of a Bahraini man shot during an anti-government protest two weeks ago in Salmabad outside the capital Manama. Authorities were also on alert in case confrontations between youths and police in Shia villages turned violent.

"The country is not prepared to host Formula One," Fadel Mohammed, a fisherman, told Reuters yesterday. "First we solve the problems in the country and then we will host it with the will of God."

Last year's Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled amid anti-government demonstrations in Manama. More than 30 people were killed in the government crackdown on the mostly Shia Muslim pro-democracy demonstrators, who had been calling for a greater say in government matters.

The nation's Sunni Muslim rulers are keen to stage a successful Grand Prix this year to show that progress has been made. The race, which attracted more than 100,000 visitors to Bahrain in 2010, is also financially lucrative.

But human rights advocates have warned that dangerous clashes between protesters and the security forces are likely to flare before and during the race. Earlier this week, a youth group named "Revolution of February 14" after the day which many claim to be the beginning of last year's uprising, called for "three days of anger" to coincide with the race.

John Yates, former assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, who is currently advising the Bahraini government on police reform, wrote a letter to the FIA president dated 11 April, in which he claimed that the view of events in Bahrain is being "shaped by a huge amount of inaccurate and often deliberately false information being spread through social media forums".

Mr Yates wrote: "Along with my family, I feel completely safe. Indeed, safer than I have often felt in London."