Bahrain warns of 'strict measures' to restore security

Manama quiet last night as soldiers patrol key points after three protesters die in raid foreign minister says was necessary to pull Bahrain back from the 'brink of a sectarian abyss'.

Bahraini women wait outside a hospital in Manama, Bahrain, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2011, where victims of the confrontation between anti-government protestors and riot police were being treated. Armed patrols prowled neighborhoods and tanks appeared in the streets for the first time after riot police with tear gas and clubs drove protesters from a main square where they had demanded sweeping political change.(AP Photo/Hasan Jamali) *** Local Caption ***  XHJ116_Mideast_Bahrain_Protests.jpg
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MANAMA // Bahrain's capital city was quiet last night as soldiers backed by armoured personnel carriers set up checkpoints and patrolled parts of the kingdom, with the defence ministry warning it would take "strict measures" to restore security in the city.

The military moved in after at least three people were killed in a pre-dawn raid yesterday by riot police on protesters camped out in Pearl Square, the centre of demonstrations. Bahrain's ministry of health said another 195 people were also wounded.

The army and tanks moved in hours later, announcing on state television that central parts of the capital were under its control. A defence ministry spokesman said in a statement that the kingdom's defence forces would "take all strict and preventive measures to restore security and public order" and urged people to "refrain from gathering in vital areas".

GCC foreign ministers met in an emergency session in Manama yesterday. In a statement last night, they stressed their "full support for the Kingdom of Bahrain in politics, economics, security and defence".

The statement continued that "the responsibility for maintaining security and stability is a collective one".

In a televised press conference last night, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Bahrain's foreign minister, said the raid was necessary to pull Bahrain back from the "brink of a sectarian abyss". Banks and other key institutions did not open yesterday, and workers stayed home, either unable or afraid to pass through checkpoints to get to their jobs.

Also last night, hundreds of government opponents gathered outside the emergency room at Salmaniya Medical Complex in the capital. After the government had cleared Pearl Square, the protesters moved to the hospital to check on fellow protesters who had been injured and taken there. The hospital site was peaceful last night but protesters were tense.

"Tonight we came because there is no other place to go. If we go on the streets they will fight with us," said Hani, 30, who declined to provide his last name for fear of retribution. He said he had been in Pearl Square Wednesday with his wife and two small children but left before the violence erupted. He said he had several friends who were hurt at the square and he and his family came to the hospital to show their support.

The raid on Pearl Square was launched without warning at about 3am, said opposition members and witnesses, who reported that riot police stormed the area swinging batons, firing tear gas and buckshot. "They attacked the square, where hundreds of people were spending the night in tents," one witness, Fadel Ahmad, 37, told Agence France-Presse. At the hospital, medical staff were overwhelmed as ambulances and private cars were still ferrying in the injured more than three hours after the raid began. Relatives of the victims gathered outside the hospital. Others queued to donate blood.

Demonstrators had camped around the square's 90metre monument, which features a giant pearl, serving as a central road junction in the city.

An interior ministry spokesman, General Tarek al Hassan, said police had no option but to raid the square. "The security forces evacuated Pearl Square … after having exhausted all chance of dialogue," General al Hassan said, in a statement broadcast by the official news agency, BNA.

"Some left the place of their own accord, while others refused to submit to the law, which required an intervention to disperse them."

The developments marked an attempt to end days of protests that left on protestor dead on Monday and another on Tuesday.

After days of boycotting the legislature, Al Wefaq, the Shiite opposition bloc, with 18 seats in the 40-member parliament, said it would quit the parliament altogether.

Bahrain's opposition groups demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa's government in the wake of the raid on the square.

Al Wefaq's leader, Sheikh Ali Salman, said: "The opposition groups, including Al Wefaq, have issued a statement demanding the government resign and calling for the formation of a new government to investigate this crime."

Bahrain's parliament later met in emergency session, minus the boycotting opposition lawmakers.

In Washington, a US official said the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had spoken Thursday to the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al Khalifa.

"She expressed deep concern about recent events and urged restraint moving forward. They discussed political and economic reform efforts to respond to the citizens of Bahrain," the official said.

American navy officials in the Pentagon and in 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain have said they are monitoring developments in Bahrain, but have not experienced any impact on their operations from to the unrest.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, demanded a halt to violence against peaceful demonstrators, who stand up to voice "their legitimate aspirations" in Bahrain, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.

The UN chief told reporters in New York that "the situation calls for bold reforms, not repression", and demanded respect for human rights including the rights of peaceful protest and assembly, freedom of the press and access to information.

In 2001, a national referendum transformed Bahrain from an emirate into a constitutional monarchy and led to elections in 2002 for the first time since parliament was scrapped in 1975.

The country's prime minister is named by the king, while the opposition wants the prime minister to be elected.

* The National