Bahrain Grand Prix: Crown prince backs race despite protests

Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa says the weekend's grand prix will go ahead despite protests.

"Cancelling the race just powers extremists. Having it allows us to build bridges and celebrate our nation as an idea that's positive," he said.

Unrest in the Gulf state has led to calls for the race to be cancelled for the second year running.

On Friday, thousands attended a protest in Budaiya, demanding an end to the crackdown on dissent.

Riot police initially showed restraint, but when a group of about 100 protesters broke away and attempted to reach the site of the former Pearl Roundabout - the focus of last year's pro-democracy demonstrations - they fired stun grenades and tear gas.

The overnight demonstrations called for the "overthrow of the regime" and the release of the human rights and political activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has been on hunger strike in prison for more than 70 days in protest at the life sentence he received from a military tribunal in June.

Earlier in the day, the Force India team missed Friday's second practice session because they wanted to return to their hotel before dark.

Four of their mechanics narrowly avoided being hit by petrol bombs during a clash between protesters and police on Wednesday.

On Thursday, a bus containing 12 mechanics from the Sauber team took to the hard shoulder after encountering a burning bottle in the road and seeing masked men running towards their lane. No-one was hurt in either incident.

Several British politicians have called for the race to be cancelled while Amnesty International said "not much has changed" in Bahrain since last year's protests led to the deaths of more than 50 anti-government demonstrators.

Prime Minister David Cameron said it was a matter for Formula 1, but Labour leader if the grand prix went ahead at a time of protests over human rights abuses.

However, Prince Salman said he thought the race could be "a force for good".

"I think this race should continue because it is indeed a very big event for this country, important economically, socially," he said.

"It was only a few politicians who made those comments and it certainly doesn't represent the entire British political system."

The crown prince, flanked by F1 chief Bernie Ecclestone, gave a media briefing at the track.

Ecclestone said: "We came here because this race asked to be put on the calendar. We're happy and delighted it was.

"What happens in this country is nothing to do with us. This race has given the protesters an incredible platform for all you guys to talk to them.

"They say they talk about democracy, which is freedom of speech. They've had all the freedom in the world to talk."

Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali said teams had been given assurances about their safety.

"With regard to security, we have received all the guarantees from the federation and the organiser and so far everything is under control. I don't feel we as teams are the target of the protesters and that is really important," he said.

"I would say there are two points. One there is the race, a sporting event, where we have to be focused as a team here in the paddock.

"Secondly, there is a political issue that is not really on our side to comment."

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh added: "We're cautious, and we try to take the right precautions, but ultimately we're a race team. We're here to go motor racing and that's our number one priority."

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