MANAMA // Security forces reinforced by pro-government mobs fired rubber-coated bullets and tear gas yesterday to scatter protesters near Bahrain's royal palace, as a conflict deepened between Sunnis backing the ruling system and Shiites demanding it give up its monopoly on power.
The clashes broke out after an hours-long standoff between tens of thousands of demonstrators facing down lines of riot police and Sunni vigilantes carrying swords, clubs, metals pipes and stones. Habib Ibreeq, a protester, said people used private cars to ferry the injured to hospitals.
The latest clash reinforces the sense that nearly a month of protests led by the Shiite majority to demand sweeping political reforms was veering towards sectarian street battles between the divided communities. Shiites have long complained of discrimination, but the political goals of the opposition are diverse. Moderates are demanding the resignation of the cabinet and a new constitution under which the government is elected. Others are calling for the ousting of the ruling family.
The full number of injured was not immediately clear, but witnesses said it included dozens of people overcome by tear gas and others hit by stones or cut by blades.
Some main opposition parties had called for the march to be cancelled, fearing Bahrain was moving dangerously close to full-scale sectarian battles after weeks of protests. On Thursday, students clashed at a school and Sunni groups burnt a Shiite-owned supermarket and threatened other businesses.
But Shiite youth groups ignored the appeals to call off the protest near the offices and compounds of Bahrain's king and other members of the ruling dynasty that has held power for more than two centuries.
The brief - but intense - melee began as protesters began to withdraw from a razor wire barrier separating the two sides. Witnesses said some stones were thrown from the pro-government mobs and they began to pour through an opening in the blockade. Within moments, police had fired tear gas and rubber-coated bullets to drive back the demonstrators, who included children.
A statement earlier by Bahrain's interior ministry warned against holding the march amid a "level of sectarian tension that threatens Bahrain's social fabric".
Hours before the clash, pro-government groups attacked several cars trying to reach the area near the royal compounds.
Johnny Miller, a British cameraman on assignment for Iran's state-run Press TV, said dozens of assailants broke the windows of their car and insulted his Bahraini Shiite assistant.
Many Shiites in Bahrain claim the pro-government mobs include Sunnis from other Arab states and South Asia who are given citizenship and jobs under a government programme to try to offset the Shiites' demographic advantage. The government denies the accusation.
A prominent human-rights lawyer, Mohamed al Tajer, said: "This is a systematic operation to unleash these thugs to threaten Shiites and act as enforcers for the ruling system."
Major Sunni-Shiite clashes occurred during the 1990s and forced Bahrain's Sunni rulers to introduce political reforms that included an elected parliament. But the island's Shiites, about 70 per cent of the population, still see themselves stuck in a permanent underclass status.
They are effectively blackballed from top government or security posts and complain that voting districts are gerrymandered to prevent a Shiite majority in the 40-seat parliament, where Wefaq, the main Shiite bloc, took 18 seats in elections last year.
A main grievance is the Sunni naturalisation policies, which seek to offset the lopsided Shiite population advantage and bulk up the ranks of loyalists. Opposition groups estimate tens of thousands of Sunnis from across the Arab world and South Asia have been brought to Bahrain in recent years.
On Thursday, the GCC backed a US$20 billion (Dh73.4bn) aid plan for Bahrain and Oman, which has also faced protests calling for reforms.
In Geneva, UN human rights officials said three prominent human rights activists in Bahrain were being targeted by death threats conveyed through Facebook and other social media sites. Rupert Colville of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the messages on Facebook and other social media websites denounce the three men as "traitors" and aim to incite people to kill them.
The three being targeted are Mohammed al Masqati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights; Naji Fateel, another member of the society; and Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, a former director at Frontline Defenders, Mr Colville said.