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Violent Clashes in Bahrain Ahead of Grand Prix

Police, protesters face off as Bahraini government disregards calls for reform

Common Dreams staff

A woman and her child pass in front of anti-Formula One graffiti in the village of Barbar, west of Manama in this April 5, 2012 file photo. (REUTERS-Hamad)

Pro-democracy advocates and student-aged activists took to the street of Bahrain as promised Thursday night and into today, showing their contempt for the ruling monarchy and hoping to leverage the international attention drawn by this weekend's Formula 1 'Grand Prix'.  The February 14 Youth Movement had called for "three days of rage" to coincide with the event.

Protesters clashed with security forces who shot tear gas and buckshot from behind heavy shields. "The people want to topple the regime," chanted dozens of protesters carrying pictures of jailed hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, according to Agence France-Presse. "Down Hamad," they called, referring to Bahrain's king.

The mostly-Shia opposition movement is demanding greater equality and democracy reforms in the Sunni-ruled nation. The Formula 1 'Grand Prix' is one of the world's most elite automobile racing circuits, which the Bahraini government has spent more than $40 million to host this year. Human rights campaigners across the world have criticized the regime for its human rights record and called for cancellation of the race.

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Reuters: Police, protesters face off as Bahrain Grand Prix begins

On the eve of Friday's practice session, protests had flared in villages surrounding the capital, far from the circuit where the race will be held. Police fired tear gas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators in clashes that have been building in the week leading to Sunday's round of the World Championship.

Bahrain has been in turmoil since a democracy movement erupted last year following uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Protests were initially crushed with the loss of dozens of lives, but youths still clash daily with riot police in Shi'ite Muslim districts, and thousands take part in opposition rallies.

Bahrain's ruling al-Khalifa family, a Sunni Muslim dynasty ruling a majority Shi'ite population caught between neighbors Saudi Arabia and Iran with opposite sympathies in its internal strife, hopes the race will offer an opportunity to tell the world that life is returning to normal.

Unrest forced the cancellation of last year's Grand Prix, and the 2012 race has been in doubt as Bahrain's human rights record has come under fire from abroad.

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Agence France-Presse: 'Down with Hamad!'

The overnight clashes between protesters and security forces across Shiite villages continued into the early morning, witnesses said.

"The people want to topple the regime," chanted dozens of protesters carrying pictures of jailed hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja. "Down Hamad," they called, referring to Bahrain's king.

Met by tear gas and sound bombs, the protesters responded by hurling petrol bombs at security forces, witnesses said. Security forces also fired buckshot to disperse the crowds, wounding dozens of people.

Protesters burned tyres, briefly blocking several main roads leading to the Sakhir circuit where Friday's Formula One practices were taking place, witnesses said.

The February 14 Youth Movement had called on social networking sites for "three days of rage" to coincide with the event.

And Bahrain's main opposition group, Al-Wefaq, called for a week of daily protests to coincide with the Grand Prix, to focus media attention on their longstanding demands for greater equality in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

The government has barred the opposition from holding protests in Manama itself.

Earlier this week, hundreds of protesters marched carrying banners held a demonstration near Bahrain's international airport as the race teams flew in, despite the arrest of about 80 leading pro-democracy activists.

The Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled last year in the wake of a Shiite-led uprising against the Sunni monarchy and the brutal government crackdown that followed in which a government commission said 35 people were killed.

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