Four killed as riot police storm Bahrain camp

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Bahrain's top diplomat says the pre-dawn crackdown on anti-government protesters was justified because the demonstrators were pushing the kingdom to the "brink of the sectarian abyss."

Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said today the violence that occurred during the raid that swept away a protest encampment and left at least four people dead in Manama's central Pearl Square was "regrettable."

Speaking to reporters after meeting with his Gulf counterparts, al Khalifa said the protesters were pushing the Sunni-ruled, Shiite-majority nation to the "brink of the sectarian abyss" and "polarizing the country."

Soldiers and tanks were patrolling the streets of Bahrain's capital today after at least four people died when riot police dispersed a protest camp.

Police swinging clubs and firing tear gas smashed into anti-government demonstrators, many of them sleeping, in a pre-dawn raid.

Medical officials said four people were killed.

Hours after the attack on Manama's main Pearl Square, the military announced a ban on gatherings, saying on state TV that it had "key parts" of the capital under its control.

Manama was effectively shut down, with banks and key institutions closed and workers staying at home.

After several days of holding back, the island nation's Sunni rulers unleashed a heavy crackdown, trying to stamp out the first anti-government upheaval to reach the Arab states of the Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

The move was a sign of how deeply the Sunni monarchy - and other Arab regimes in the Gulf - fear the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests, led by members of the country's Shiite majority.

Tiny Bahrain is a pillar of Washington's military framework in the region. It hosts the US Navy's 5th Fleet, which is a critical counterbalance to Iran.

Bahrain's rulers and their Arab allies depict any sign of unrest among their Shiite populations as a move by neighbouring Shiite-majority Iran to expand its clout in the region.

But the assault may only further enflame protesters. In the wake of the bloodshed, angry demonstrators chanted "the regime must go" and burned pictures of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa outside the emergency ward at Salmaniyah hospital, the main state medical facility.

The hospital was thrown into chaos by a stream of dozens of wounded from Pearl Square with gaping wounds, broken bones and respiratory problems from tear gas.

Men and women lay in shock on stretchers, heads bleeding, arms in casts, faces bruised as they were shuttled around by nurses. At the entrance, women wrapped in black robes embraced each other and wept.

The Interior Ministry warned Bahrainis to stay off the streets. Workers were unable or too afraid to pass through checkpoints to get to their jobs.

Barbed wire and police cars with flashing blue lights encircled Pearl Square, the site of anti-government rallies since Monday.

The square was turned into a field of flattened protest tents and the strewn belongings of the protesters who had camped there - pieces of clothing and boxes of food. Banners lay trampled on the ground, littered with broken glass, tear gas canisters and debris. A body covered in a white sheet lay in a pool of blood on the side of a road.

Demonstrators had been camping out for days around the square's 300-foot (90 metre) monument featuring a giant pearl, a testament to the island's pearl-diving past.

The protesters' demands have two main objectives: force the ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions, and address deep grievances held by the country's majority Shiites who make up 70 % of Bahrain's 500,000 citizens but claim they face systematic discrimination and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

The assault came early today with little warning, demonstrators said. Police surrounded the square and then quickly moved in: Some lined up on a bridge overhead, pumping down volleys of tear gas, as others waded into the camp, knocking down tents and swinging truncheons at those inside.

"We yelled, 'We are peaceful! Peaceful!' The women and children were attacked just like the rest of us," said protester Mahmoud Mansouri. "They moved in as soon as the media left us. They knew what they're doing."

Dr Sadek Al-Ikri, 44, said he was tending to sick protesters at a makeshift medical tent in the square when the police stormed in. He said he was tied up and severely beaten, then thrown on a bus with others.

"They were beating me so hard I could no longer see. There was so much blood running from my head," he said. "I was yelling, 'I'm a doctor. I'm a doctor.' But they didn't stop."

He said the police beating him spoke Urdu, the main language of Pakistan. A pillar of the protest demands is to end the Sunni regime's practice of giving citizenship to other Sunnis from around the region to try to offset the demographic strength of Shiites. Many of the new Bahrainis are given security posts.

Al-Ikri said he and others on the bus were left on a highway overpass, but the beatings didn't stop. Eventually, the doctor said he fainted but could hear another police official say in Arabic: "Stop beating him. He's dead. We should just leave him here."

Many families were separated in the chaos. An Associated Press photographer saw police rounding up lost children and taking them into vehicles.

ABC News said its correspondent, Miguel Marquez, was caught in the crowd and beaten by men with billy clubs, although he was not badly injured.

The violence killed four people, said hospital officials.

Bahrain's parliament - minus opposition lawmakers who are staging a boycott - met in emergency session. One pro-government member, Jamila Salman, broke into tears. A leader of the Shiite opposition Abdul-Jalil Khalil said 18 MPs have resigned to protest at the killings.

While the protests began as a cry for the country's Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip, the uprising's demands have steadily grown bolder. Many protesters called for the government to provide more jobs and better housing, free all political detainees and abolish the system that offers Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis from around the Middle East.

Increasingly, protesters also chanted slogans to wipe away the entire ruling dynasty that has led Bahrain for more than 200 years and is firmly backed by the Sunni sheiks and monarchs across the Gulf.

The stability of Bahrain's government is seen as crucial by its other allies in the Gulf, who - thought they rarely say it in public - see Bahrain's Shiite majority as the weak link in their unity against Iranian influence.

Although Bahrain is sandwiched between OPEC heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it has limited oil resources and depends heavily on its role as a regional financial hub and playground for Saudis, who can drive over a causeway to enjoy Bahrain's Western-style bars, hotels and beaches.

The unrest could threaten the opening next month of Formula One racing, one of the centrepieces of Bahrain's claims for international prestige. The GP2 Asia Series race, due to start on Friday on the same circuit used by Formula One, was called off at the request of the Bahrain Motorsport Federation "due to force majeure," race organisers announced.

The pre-dawn violence brought new criticism from Europe, on top of condemnations that came after two protesters were killed in clashes on Monday.

Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the new violence and urged Bahraini authorities to show restraint. The European Union foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, "deplored" the deaths and urged Bahrain to respect "the fundamental rights of their citizens."

The protest movement's next move is unclear.

Before the attack on the square, protesters had called for major rallies after Friday prayers. The reported deaths, however, could become a fresh rallying point.