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Bahraini forces launch blitz on demonstrators

Bahraini troops backed by helicopters have launched a crackdown on protesters, imposing a curfew and clearing hundreds from a camp that had become the symbol of an uprising by the Shi’ite Muslim majority.

Hospital sources said three policemen and three protesters were killed yesterday in the assault that began a day after Bahrain declared martial law to quell sectarian unrest that has sucked in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbour Saudi Arabia.

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A member of parliament from the largest Shi’ite Muslim opposition group said the Government assault was a declaration of war on the Shi’ite community.

“This is war of annihilation. This does not happen even in wars and this is not acceptable,” Abdel Jalil Khalil, the head of Wefaq’s 18-member parliament bloc, said.

“I saw them fire live rounds, in front of my own eyes.”

Police fired teargas as they advanced from about 7am on the Pearl Roundabout, focal point of weeks of protests. Youths hurled petrol bombs at police near the roundabout and scattered as new rounds of teargas hit.

The area was cleared within about two hours but protesters knocked down two policemen in their cars as they fled.

Wearing semi-automatic rifles and black face masks, Bahraini troops also blocked off several streets including the main road to the Shi’ite area of Sitra. Tanks guarded key intersections and the entrances to some areas.

Streets were deserted, shops were closed and people queued at cash machines.

“There are shots near and far. It’s not only shooting in the air, it’s urban warfare,” said a resident who lives nearby in the north west of Bahrain.

Riot police also blocked access to Manama’s Salmaniya Hospital, where many civilian casualties had previously been treated, and witnesses said access to other health centres was also blocked.

It did not appear that Gulf Arab forces invited in by the Government for support were involved in the operation.

The United States, a close ally of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, has called for restraint in the island kingdom, home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. It sent US Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman to Bahrain to push for talks to resolve the crisis.

More than 60% of Bahrainis are Shi’ites and they complain of discrimination at the hands of the Sunni royal family, the al-Khalifa. Most Shi’ites want a constitutional monarchy but calls by some hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed the Sunni minority, which fears unrest could serve non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran.

Gulf Arab ruling families are Sunni and analysts say the intervention of their forces in Bahrain might provoke a response from Iran, which supports Shi’ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Bahrain’s crackdown was “unjustifiable and irreparable”.

“Today, we witness the degree of pressure imposed on the majority of people in Bahrain,” he said. “What has happened is bad, unjustifiable and irreparable.”

The crackdown against Shi’ite protesters has also galvanised Iraq’s Shi’ite community, exacerbating sectarian tension that led to years of war there.

Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for mass demonstrations in Baghdad and Basra in support of mainly Shi’ite demonstrators in Bahrain. “This was a major and a dangerous decision because this issue has been internationalised now. There are protests in Iraq, in Iran, in Lebanon,” said Wefaq MP Jasim Hussein.

Bahrain’s stock market was closed yesterday due to the state of emergency and, in London, Standard Chartered and HSBC Holdings – two of the leading foreign banks in the country -–closed all their branches in Bahrain.

The British embassy upgraded the travel warning on its website yesterday as the security situation deteriorated and residents trying to flee said flights out of Bahrain were full.

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