Thousands of soldiers and police, backed by tanks and helicopters, advanced behind clouds of tear gas to crush pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain yesterday.
The assault, which came immediately after the arrival of 1,000 Saudi troops in the island kingdom, drove demonstrators swiftly from their camp at Pearl Square, the symbolic heart of the protest. Three protesters and three policemen died. Clouds of black smoke rose over the centre of the capital Manama, as the Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy made a risky bid to continue its 200-year-long rule over the majority Shia population. The white tents of protesters were set on fire and there was the sound of what appeared to be live rounds being fired, as well as rubber bullets and tear gas grenades. Two policemen were reported to have been killed by people fleeing the square in their cars.
"The military has taken over and are shooting from helicopters at people in Pearl Square," said Ali Salman, the president of the al-Wefaq, the largest opposition party in Bahrain.
Mr Salman said Saudi troops were not taking part in the government action against protesters, but while Saudis "are in Bahrain it is a green light to our army to kill people. The Saudis don't want any of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries to be democratic."
The riot police and soldiers began their all-out assault at 7am, but met only limited resistance at Pearl Square. At Budaya health centre a witness told a news agency that he had seen about 50 casualties: "I've seen some terrific wounds, lots of people hurt by bird shot," he said. "One had his hand blown up by some kind of bullet. He was using his other hand to show the victory sign."
The Bahraini government's story of events in Pearl Square is that its forces were attacked by 250 "saboteurs" throwing petrol bombs, forcing them to retaliate. In Shia areas people went to mosques to pray as a sign of protest as the army assault began. Soldiers were reported to be entering Shia villages outside Manama, where they were met with stones and petrol bombs in some places. A 4am to 4pm curfew has been imposed in most of the country and security forces have banned journalists from moving around. Mobile phones appear to have been jammed and internet services were very slow.
Mr Salman said his party was not calling for immediate demonstrations and told protesters not to confront the army, but "after two or three days people will find a way of expressing their feelings". He did not believe there was any chance of a dialogue between reformers and the government "so long as the killing goes on".
The all-out attack by a Sunni regime notorious for its sectarianism on its own, mainly Shia, population, with the backing of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni monarchies, is likely to provoke a long-term crisis in the Gulf and deepen divisions between Shia and Sunni.
Iraq and Iran are both majority Shia states and both reacted angrily to news of the crack-down. In southern Iraq 4,000 people marched chanting "Bahrain is the Gaza of the Gulf", equating Bahraini government action against their own people with Israeli attacks on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
In Iran, the largest Shia country in terms of population, President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad compared the Saudi action to that of Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait in 1990 and how it had ultimately led to his downfall. He said on state television: "What has happened is bad, unjustifiable and irreparable." In the past, however, Iran has been cautious about going beyond rhetorical attacks on Saudi Arabia or the small Sunni states on the western side of the Gulf. "The people's demands for change must be respected," said Mr Ahmedinejad. "How is it possible to stop waves of humanity with military force?"
British nationals in Bahrain were last night urged by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to leave the country today, unless they have a "pressing reason" to stay. It said it is chartering planes to supplement commercial flights out.
Prime Minister David Cameron telephoned King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to urge him to end the violent suppression of street protests. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, spoke to Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohamed Al Khalifa, his Bahrani counterpart, to express "serious concern" at the situation and urge restraint. Mr Hague said: "The UK remains seriously concerned about today's clashes with protesters and reports of several casualties."
The US is in a difficult position and is very publicly distancing itself from the Saudi action and that of the Bahraini government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed alarm at the "provocative acts and sectarian violence". The contradictions in the US position were underlined when she phoned Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal to stress that Saudi soldiers in their armoured vehicles should be used to promote dialogue.
But while the US is asking for moderation, it probably draws the line at the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain by a Shia protest movement, however peaceful and democratic.
Government supporters armed with sticks, knives and guns yesterday attacked thousands of pro-democracy protesters camped out in a main square, injuring hundreds of people, according to witnesses.
About 10,000 government supporters attacked about 4,000 protesters in southern al-Hudaydah port on the Red Sea. Witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals. Police separated the sides by firing tear-gas.
Plain-clothed security officers armed with batons dispersed about 100 protesters in the Syrian capital yesterday, beating some and detaining at least 30 people, according to witnesses and rights groups.
Syrians have tried to stage demonstrations inspired by those sweeping the Arab world, but intimidation and other factors have quashed the gatherings in a country that routinely jails critics of the regime.
Dozens of Tunisian youths have protested against the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, shouting "No to foreign intervention" and "Clinton get out". The hour-long rally on Tunis's main thoroughfare, organised via Facebook, ended peacefully, hours before Ms Clinton's arrival last night. More protests are planned, including in front of the US Embassy, and blogger Oussama Mraissi says a big rally is planned in Tunis today.