Security forces yesterday fired stun grenades at anti-government protesters who swarmed into a cultural exhibition for Bahrain's Formula One race, setting off street battles and sending visitors fleeing for cover.
It was a blow to the Gulf nation's efforts to project stability on their return to the Grand Prix circuit a year after the race was cancelled because of unrest. The demonstration was the most direct attempt by protesters to infiltrate events linked to Sunday's race in an attempt to get it called off.
The resumption of such a top-level event is being touted by Bahrain's rulers as a sign they have the upper hand after 14 months of clashes and crackdowns. However, more trouble is forecast. Reports from the Sanabis region have already revealed that crown prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the prime mover behind the decision to hold the reinstated Grand Prix this weekend at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, was confronted by protesters, though left unharmed.
Sanabis is a stronghold of the Shias, whose actions led to postponement, then cancellation, of last year's race. Their latest outpouring of anger follows last Friday's decision by the FIA president, Jean Todt, that the Bahrain race will go ahead despite strong reservations among the teams, media and human rights organisations.
Protesting factions have further promised "days of rage" during the grand prix weekend, as their campaigns against the race ramp up. Yesterday security forces clamped down by rounding up dozens of activists.
Sayed Hadi al-Mousawi, a senior figure with the opposition Wefaq party, predicted future demonstrations in the Sakhir region, which is south of the capital and away from most residential areas. "There are hundreds or maybe thousands who will get there and raise slogans, and they don't care if they are taken to jail," he said. "People have reached the point of no fear."
Protest groups have vowed to get into the circuit at Sakhir and engage in disruptive protests. They also plan to hold daily events, including a march in Manama on Thursday, followed by the "days of rage" on Saturday and Sunday.
Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda, of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said: "They plan activities at the track but they have not announced what. For sure there will be something."