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In Bahrain, Conflicting Views on Deadly Police Raid From Government, Protesters

February 17, 2011 at 5:49 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: The capital of tiny Bahrain was under military lockdown this evening, hours after riot police smashed the protesters’ main camp. The raid followed days of demonstrations in the Persian Gulf state, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Hospital officials reported at least five killed and scores more hurt.

We begin with a report from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

Pleased be advised, some of the images are disturbing.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Their plan was to recreate Cairo’s Tahrir Square at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, but the security forces moved against them in the early hours.

Amateur footage shows the chaos, as tear gas and bird shot were unleashed. The several hundred protesters were mostly sleeping at the time in their tents.

MAN (through translator): We didn’t attack anyone. We were sleeping and hoping for the best. We didn’t expect the police to attack us so late at night. It was so sudden.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Bahrain television showed the official version of events. The voice-over says the police gave warnings and used minimum force. He talks of casualties amongst the police, not the protesters.

But the scene at the hospital a short while later shows the anger and desperation of the demonstrators. They say that doctors were initially prevented from treating the injured and that scores of people are missing, feared dead.

WOMAN (through translator): We have children, and we came in peace. The police are thieves. They destroyed our tents and threatened us and our children with their weapons. They took down our tent. We saw with our own eyes how they killed the martyrs. We watched them kill and beat up the protesters.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Some of the injuries are horrific. A human rights worker told Channel 4 News that the police used bird shot at close range, and this was the result.

Again, the government countered with its own version. They say these are policemen injured by protesters. Later, they displayed on TV daggers and swords which they say they seized, although there’s been no footage which shows the protesters carrying any weapons.

Later in the day, a pro-government demonstration was organized. Undoubtedly, some Bahraini citizens do support King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, but the Shia majority suffer discrimination, and young people are disappointed that there’s been so little political and social reform. Tanks are now on the streets of Manama, the army ready to crush any further unrest.

DEFENSE FORCES SPOKESMAN (through translator): The central command of the Bahrain defense forces announces that military forces have deployed in the capital in order to take necessary procedures to protect citizens and residents, to protect their rights and their properties from all acts of violence.

LINDSEY HILSUM: This evening, Gulf foreign ministers gathered in Manama for a scheduled meeting, each one anxious that the unrest will spread, that princes and kings will prove as vulnerable as the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt.

And down the road at the hospital, protesters kept their noisy vigil, waiting for news of the wounded and demanding the overthrow of Bahrain’s ruling dynasty.

JIM LEHRER: Later in the evening, Bahrain’s foreign minister defended the crackdown. He said the violence was regrettable, but the demonstrators left the government no choice.

SHEIKH KHALED BIN AHMED AL-KHALIFA, Bahraini foreign minister: The country was walking on the — on the brink of a sectarian abyss. So, it was a very important step that had to happen. Police took every care possible. But this is — this is — there’s nothing that guarantees that mishaps would happen, and that, unfortunately, led to deaths.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington today, a White House spokesman voiced strong displeasure with the attacks on protesters. Defense Secretary Gates telephoned Bahrain’s crown prince. Officials would not say what they discussed.

And Secretary of State Clinton spoke to the kingdom’s foreign minister before briefing U.S. senators at the Capitol.

U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I called my counterpart in Bahrain this morning and directly conveyed our deep concerns about the actions of the security forces. And I emphasized how important it was that, given that there will be both funerals and prayers tomorrow, that that not be — not be marred by violence.

JIM LEHRER: The U.N. secretary-general also weighed in on the Bahrain situation. Ban Ki-Moon said — Ban — Ban Ki-Moon said the reported violence against protesters was deeply troubling. And he said it must stop.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, police and government supporters battled an estimated 6,000 people in Sanaa. And four more demonstrators were killed in Aden, making six in two days.

In Northern Iraq, security guards killed two Kurdish protesters. The guards opened fire when crowds threw stones at offices of the Kurdish ruling party. And crowds marched in Libya for a second day. The opposition reported 10 protesters in two cities have been killed.