Bahrain's foreign minister says country is at 'very dangerous stage'

Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al Khalifa tells Turkish TV: 'We are absolutely afraid of the division between religious communities.'

MANAMA // Bahrain's foreign minister spoke during a visit to Turkey yesterday of his fear of a "division between religious communities" after six weeks of unrest on the island nation,

Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al Khalifa met the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday, a day after a trip to Cairo.

"What is happening in Bahrain is now at a very dangerous stage. There is stability but, we are absolutely afraid of the division between religious communities," Sheikh Khaled said in an interview with Turkish TV channel NTV.

"We should discuss with our Turkish allies about a common stance for these divisions and conflicts between religious communities."

During his visit to Cairo on Tuesday, Sheikh Khaled stressed that the government is now focused on restoring security and starting political consultations; comments that came in the wake of last week's violent crackdown on pro-reform demonstrations and the announcement of a three-month state of emergency.

Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, the crown prince, was charged last month by his father, King Hamad bin Isa, with starting a "national dialogue" with opposition groups.

But, after a week of violence in which at least 15 people were killed, the main opposition groups say they cannot begin talks with tanks still on the streets and while government checkpoints remain.

Khalil al Marzooq, a leading figure in Al Wefaq, the main Shia opposition movement, said: "We are not against the dialogue, but what is happening on the ground is humiliating. What is happening at the checkpoints where they are asking if people are Shia or Sunni, and at the very least insulting them, if not arresting or beating them. This is not an atmosphere for dialogue. Are they serious or just asking us to surrender?"

At a press briefing in Washington on Tuesday, Mark Toner, a spokesperson for the US State Department, said a clear political process, and not a security solution, is needed to resolve the crisis.

"We want to see an end to the violence [in Bahrain] and a political dialogue that addresses the Bahraini people's concerns and, again, a political process that moves forward and towards a resolution," he said.

The Bahraini government yesterday condemned "external interference in its domestic matters", referring specifically to comments made by Hizbollah, which has heavily criticised the violent clampdown on demonstrators.

Bahrain subsequently issued a warning against travel to Lebanon and the country's carriers, Gulf Air and Bahrain Air, have suspended flights to Beirut.

Maysoon Sabkar, a government spokeswoman, said at a press briefing yesterday: "Recent calls for reform by sections of the Bahraini people were hijacked by an extreme agenda, resulting in an escalation of more violent methods, leading to a fundamental breakdown in law and order." She added that "evidence" of foreign interference would be provided soon.

While there have been accusations of Iranian involvement in the recent unrest on the island, Mr Toner downplayed the possibility.

"In terms of Iran's influence, of course, Iran has a long history of destabilizing activities in the region, and we recognize that," he said. "We have, however, seen no evidence to suggest this is happening in Bahrain."

Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Dar has been sanctioned for referring to the deployment of the Saudi-led Peninsula Shield Force, which also comprises UAE police, as an "invasion".

" Al Dar's editor, Abdulhussein al Sultan, told AFP: "So far we have not received official notification, though we heard that we have been referred to the public prosecution for criticising Saudi Arabia."

With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse