Bahrain king orders release of political prisoners

Bahrain's king ordered the release of some political prisoners today, conceding to another opposition demand as the embattled monarchy tries to engage protesters in talks aimed at ending an uprising that has entered its second week.

The king's decree — which covers several Shiite activists accused of plotting against the state — adds to the brinksmanship on both sides that has included a massive pro-government rally yesterday, an opposition march in response and the planned return of a prominent opposition figure from exile.



It's unclear how many prisoners will be freed, said government spokeswoman Maysoon Sabkar.



But they include some of the 25 Shiite activists on trial for allegedly plotting against the Sunni rulers of the strategic island kingdom, a leading member of Bahrain's Shiite opposition, Abdul Jalili Khalil, told The Associated Press.



He called the prisoner release "a good step" and a "positive gesture."



Two of those in the case are being tried in absentia, including opposition leader Hassan Meshaima, who has been in self-exile in London since last year. He was expected to return to Bahrain later today.



Mesheima's presence could bolster opposition forces seeking a harder line against the monarchy, including some who have called for the complete ouster of the king and the royal dynasty that has ruled for more than 200 years.



Meshaima's group, known as Haq, is considered more radical than the main Shiite political bloc that has so far taken a central role in the revolt, which began last week with marches but quickly met with violent resistance from security forces.



The primary Shiite group includes 18 members of the 40-member parliament, who resigned on Thursday to protest the killing of demonstrators by security forces.



More than 100,000 opposition supporters marched today through the capital of Manama, carrying Bahrain's red-and-white flag and circling the Bahrain Mall and Manama's financial district — symbols of the country's prosperity in recent decades. Security forces did not move to confront the procession, but helicopters circled overhead.



"Egypt, Tunisia, are we any different?" they chanted.



The government said the overall death toll was seven from street clashes, which included the army opening fire on protesters. But it's unclear whether it included a man who died of injuries yesterday. Reports from opposition groups and hospital officials in the past week set the death toll at eight and hundreds wounded — far more than the 25 listed by authorities.



The attacks on protesters have brought stinging denunciations from Bahrain's Western allies, including the United States. The US maintains very close ties with Bahrain, which hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet.



Bahrain authorities withdrew the military on Saturday and allowed protesters to reclaim the landmark Pearl Square, which has been the centre of the Shiite-led uprising.



Bahrain's Shiite majority has complained of discrimination and political persecution in the kingdom. They have staged protests in the past, but the current unrest — inspired by the toppling of regimes in Tunisia and Egypt — is the most serious against the Sunni rulers.



In a brief statement on Bahrain's official news agency, the king ordered the release of "a number of prisoners" and a halt to "several trials" of Shiite activists.



Yesterday, Bahrain's crown prince called off Formula One's season-opening race scheduled for March 13, handing another victory to protesters.



Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa owns the rights to grand prix and serves as commander of the armed forces. Protesters said it would have been disrespectful the hold the race.



The crown prince told F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone by telephone that the race would not go ahead.



"We felt it was important for the country to focus on immediate issues of national interest and leave the hosting of Bahrain's Formula One race to a later date," the crown prince said in a statement.



Sabkar told reporters the "immediate priority is to keep the peace and maintain calm." She said the government, led by the same prime minister — the king's uncle — for 40 years, was "deeply saddened by the tragic events of the past few days and its condolences go out to those families who have lost loved ones."



Opposition leaders have called for the government to resign after last week's bloodshed to pave the way for a dialogue with the crown prince.



"The government has taken a decision to shoot at its people," said Khalil, a Shiite opposition leader. "Our objective remains for this government to resign after failing to protect its people."

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