Bahrain protests: Demonstrators occupy Pearl Square

Image caption, The disturbances in Bahrain are part of a wave of unrest across the region

Thousands of people have occupied the centre of the Bahraini capital on a third day of anti-government protests.

The numbers of those who have been camping out in Manama's Pearl Square were swelled by many who joined the protests throughout the day.

The protesters are calling for wide-ranging political reforms.

Early on Thursday, there were reports that the police had used tear gas to try to disperse the crowds in the square.

"Police are coming, they are shooting teargas at us," one protester told the Reuters news agency.

Clashes earlier in the week left two dead and dozens injured in the Gulf kingdom.

Bahrain is a key US ally, hosting the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. The US has expressed concern at the violence and called for restraint.

Wednesday saw more than 1,000 people attend the funeral in Manama of a man who was killed on Tuesday during clashes with police at the funeral of another protester. Mourners chanted slogans calling for the removal of the government.

Police officers are reported to have been detained over the two deaths, with the country's interior minister describing the deaths as "regrettable" and extending condolences to the families of the deceased.

The disturbances in Bahrain - where the Shia Muslim majority has been ruled by a Sunni Muslim royal family since the 18th Century - are part of a wave of anti-government unrest that has swept the Middle East.

The Bahraini demonstrators say they want:

  • political prisoners to be released
  • more jobs and housing
  • the creation of a more representative and empowered parliament
  • a new constitution written by the people
  • a new cabinet that does not include Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been in office for 40 years

Many had to return to work after Tuesday's public holiday to mark the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, but correspondents say the momentum remains with the protesters so far.

In a rare TV appearance on Tuesday, Bahrain's king, Sheikh Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa, expressed regret about the deaths of protesters and said he would continue reforms begun in 2002 when the emirate became a constitutional monarchy.

Opposition boycott

Since independence from the UK in 1971, tensions between the Sunni elite and the less affluent Shia have frequently caused civil unrest. Shia groups say they are marginalised, subject to unfair laws, and repressed.

The conflict lessened in 1999 when Sheikh Hamad became emir. He freed political prisoners, allowed exiles to return and abolished a law permitting the government to detain individuals without trial for three years.

He also began a cautious process of democratic reform. In 2001, voters approved a National Action Charter that would transform Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy. The next year, Sheikh Hamad proclaimed himself king and decreed that a National Assembly be formed.

There was also greater protection of democracy and human rights. Although political parties were banned, "political societies" could operate.

Landmark elections were held in 2002, but the opposition boycotted them because the appointed upper chamber of parliament, the Shura Council, was given equal powers to the elected lower chamber, the Council of Representatives.

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