Bahrain Royal Family Orders Army to Turn on the People
Bahrain's ruling family has defied mounting international criticism by ordering the army to turn on its people for the first time since pro-reform demonstrations erupted five days ago.
As protesters attempted to converge on Pearl Roundabout, a landmark in the capital Manama that has become the principal rallying point of the uprising, soldiers stationed in a nearby skyscraper opened fire.
Since they took to the streets, Bahrain's protesters have come to expect violence and even death at the hands of the kingdom's security forces. At least five people were killed before yesterday's protests.
But this was on a different scale of magnitude.
As they drew near, they were met first with tear gas and then with bursts of live ammunition.
Many fled the first salvoes, scrambling down empty streets as the shots rang out behind them.
As they ran, terror and disbelief flashed across their faces. One man shouted: "They are killing our people! They are killing our people."
Cowering behind a wall, a woman wept, her body shaking in fear.
But many refused to run, initially at least, determined to defy the violence being visited upon them. Some held their hands in the air and shouted "Peaceful! Peaceful!".
The shooting resumed. One man crumpled to the ground, blood pouring from his leg; nearby a second was also felled. A scream went up: "live ammunition!"
As security forces then began to fire anti-air craft guns over their heads and the air filled with tear gas, the protesters' will finally broke.
But even as they fled in headlong panic, a helicopter sprayed gunfire at them and more fell. Paramedics from ambulances that had rushed to the scene darted forward to help the wounded, but they too were shot at. Several were detained and at least one ambulance was impounded.
Doctors at the nearby Salmaniyah hospital said they had received 32 wounded people, nine of whom were in a critical condition. There were unconfirmed reports of two deaths at Pearl Roundabout, but witnesses said the bodies had been seized by the army.
Those caught up in the violence were mourners, returning from funerals of three people killed before dawn the previous day when police opened fire on protesters, many of whom were asleep, in a successful bid to regain control of Pearl Roundabout.
Thousands thronged the body of Ali Ahmad al-Moumen as it was born aloft down the streets of Sitra, a poor Shia village near Manama.
Despite the violence, many said the death of Moumen and other protesters had only increased their determination to press ahead with the protests.
"The regime has failed to stop us," Abdulwahab Hussein, a senior Shia Muslim leader, told the crowd. "Their action shows that they are strong and we are weak."
Most of the protesters are members of Bahrain's long-marginalised Shia majority.
They say they are not demanding the abdication of Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahrain's Sunni king, but they are calling for a constitutional monarchy that would treat the Shia fairly and make them equal subjects in his kingdom.
But they are demanding the resignation of his uncle Khalifa bin Sulman Al Khalifa, who has served as prime minister for 39 years.
During his rule, the protesters say, the Shia have been turned into second class citizens, deprived of jobs in the army, police force and government while Sunnis from abroad have been given Bahraini citizenship to alter the kingdom's demographic balance.
Government officials in Bahrain have warned that the Shia opposition is controlled by Iran, which seeks to use the kingdom to establish a foothold on the Arabian peninsula.
Protesters insist that they have no love for Iran and are only seeking justice for themselves.