MANAMA // The UAE and Saudi Arabia dispatched security forces to Bahrain yesterday to help to establish "security and domestic stability", statements by all three governments said.
The deployment came at the invitation of Bahrain's government, said a statement carried by the state news agency WAM, amid continuing protests on the island.
A Saudi official confirmed that some of its soldiers had been sent by air and land to help to protect key installations and infrastructure on the island. "We are part of the GCC force that would guard the government installations," he said.
The Saudi contingent was estimated at around 1,200, and will operate alongside the UAE forces with a focus on restoring order and safety on the island.
Bahrain said the forces' involvement followed the principle of unity and the interdependence of the security of the GCC and the common responsibility of the GCC countries in maintaining security and stability.
"The UAE affirms that this step represents the active embodiment of its commitment to its brothers in the Gulf Cooperation Council," Dr Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said in a statement carried by WAM.
"It also clearly expresses that regional security and stability at this time requires all of us to unite our ranks and protect achievements and keep sectarian strife away, as well as to lay foundations for the future," he added.
Dr Gargash said the UAE had followed the developments in Bahrain with concern, in particular the national dialogue initiative launched by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
"The UAE calls on all the Bahraini people to respond positively and without prior conditions to this invitation to contribute to the reduction of tension, end the current crisis and find suitable solutions that would preserve the achievements of the brotherly Bahraini people," Dr Gargash said.
"It is important to differentiate that we're not getting involved in the dialogue between the crown prince and different Shiite leaders there," the Saudi official said.
The Saudi forces would be used "to safeguard government buildings and make sure protesters cannot disrupt the normal economic and social life of the people", he said.
He said the intervention had come after "a request made by the king for some assistance in securing public and government buildings".
The unprecedented deployment came a day after the GCC secretary general, Abdulrahman al Attiya, said "safeguarding security and stability in one country is a collective responsibility".
Demonstrators have stepped up their protests in the past two days and fought street battles with Bahraini security forces. Late yesterday protesters had managed to take over a large part of Manama city centre, with little visible police presence.
But pro-government members of Bahrain's national assembly called for martial law, blaming "extremist movements" for the violence that brought parts of the city to a standstill and heightened fears of sectarian conflict.
Jamal Fakhro, first deputy chairman of the assembly's shura council, said the GCC troops had arrived in Bahrain to "protect vital installations and maintain stability and security".
But opposition parties criticised the GCC deployments and said they would lead to heightened sectarian tensions. The United States, which bases its Fifth Fleet in the kingdom, called for GCC states to "respect the rights of the people of Bahrain".
The atmosphere in Manama was tense yesterday as news of the deployments spread. The normal economic life of Manama has been brought to a standstill in recent days. Banks, shops and offices within the protester-controlled area were mostly closed, and owners of any small businesses still open were boarding and locking up.
At midday and for much of the afternoon there were virtually no police or other security presence in a great swath of the city from Seef in the west to the diplomatic area in the west. Officers who had manned roadblocks the previous day had been pulled out and replaced by fixed obstacles in roadways.
"The protesters are being told what to do by Iran," said Saad, a 70-year-old Bahraini-born taxi driver. "They are saying bad things about His Highness. They should ask politely, not shout about what they want."
He said the government was looking after citizens well, giving as an example the recent payout of 1,000 dinars to each household. "It would take me three months to earn that," he said.
At the Pearl roundabout camp, protesters were defiant. "We are not afraid," said Mohamed al Madeh, 40. "We will face them with our empty hands."
In preparation for an attack the protesters extended roadblocks deeper into the neighbourhoods surrounding Pearl roundabout after Sunday's violence.
Last night many feared an attack was imminent, but groups of demonstrators continued to arrive.
Some women and children had left while others prepared themselves with face masks and goggles in preparation for tear gas.
A small number of white vehicles were lined up along one side of the roundabout, prepared as makeshift ambulances. Mohammed Ebrahim Isa was in his van ready to drive any injured people the short distance to Salmaniya Medical Centre.
"I'm afraid, but I am ready for anything," said the 23-year-old, who was wearing a white tunic - symbolising that he was ready to die.
In the Bab al Bahrain area, usually busy streets were empty. Barricades of rubbish bins blocked the street every 50 metres. Not one shop or restaurant was open.
Because of the road closures, Ali Hussain al Mandeel was making the two-hour walk from his work near the airport to his home near the city centre. He had been stopped by both Sunni and Shiite youths along the way. "I have to reach my family," he said.
The area controlled by the protesters abutted the diplomatic and government area, where ministries, law courts and foreign embassies are located.
The Financial Harbour district, the heart of the country's important banking industry, was in the hands of demonstrators for the second day running as protesters blocked the arterial King Faisal Highway.
The twin towers that house Bahrain's stock exchange and many foreign banks were empty, with access limited by security staff. "Nobody has come to work today," said one.
At the junction of Government and Palace Avenue, by the five-star Sheraton Hotel, protesters were breaking and stacking kerb stones behind their makeshift barriers. One of them said: "We are ready for them when they come."
Protesters were using motorbikes to patrol the area and look for any security force movements towards them.
* With additional reporting by Caryle Murphy in Riyadh