Pro-regime supporters wielding knives and sticks attacked residents of Bahrain's villages overnight, witnesses and the opposition said on Wednesday. Dozens of pro-regime thugs nicknamed locally by activists as the Baltajiya appeared at the Alba Roundabout on the outskirts of the capital Manama and entered a number of predominantly Shi'a villages Al-Wefaq, the largest Shi'a opposition group, said the attackers were in civilians clothes and “beat up” residents.
|An anti-government protester runs covering her eyes from tear gas fired by riot police during a rally in support of human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja who is on a hunger strike in prison for over a month and a half, in Manama April 7, 2012. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed|
Activist Ala'a Shehabi said the Baltajiya were operating in conjunction with the police.
“They appear alongside the police and the police don't really treat them with hostility. There is a sense of familiarity between the two,” she said.“The police were there yesterday while it was happening, they used three cans of tear gas to disperse the Baltajiya but didn't arrest anyone.”
But Bahrain's interior ministry said police “prevented” a group of unknown assailants from the entering Al-Nuweidrat village. In a statement released late Tuesday, the ministry said assailants “attacked 24-hour shops and destroyed two cars,” after holding an “illegal gathering.” Neither the government nor the opposition released figures on the numbers injured.
Grand Prix uncertainty
The Bahraini government is seeking to dispel concerns that the Grand Prix race, due to take place on April 22, is to be canceled amid increasing violence in the country.
The hunger strike of human rights leader Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, now in its 63rd day, has coincided with an increase in violence in the Gulf state, with seven policemen injured in a bomb attack on Monday. Shehabi, who has been in negotiations with Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone over the race, said new pockets of militarism had emerged in recent weeks.
“We are getting radicalized groups turning militant in frustration. We saw a petrol bomb and a few days ago there was a remote controlled explosive,” she said. “The hunger strike has given (the opposition) a headline and every minute is critical. It has made the situation more volatile.”
Shehabi spoke with Ecclestone on Tuesday, and said the British business magnate was seeking a compromise agreement that would allow the race to continue but the opposition to have their voice heard.
“He asked 'what can we do about it and how can we get you guys to feel I am not taking sides here?' and offered us a press conference for us to get our message across.”
“We are not going to reject the offer but I am not confident the government will allow it.”
Both Amnesty International and the Danish government on Tuesday condemned the Bahraini government for continuing to hold al-Khawaja and 13 other prominent opposition activists.
The co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who also holds Danish nationality, was sentenced to life in prison in June 2011 for his part in leading peaceful protests in the capital Manama.
“These 14 men should all be immediately and unconditionally released but instead the Court of Cassation has adjourned their appeal and denied them bail,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said al-Khawaj's physical condition was critical and asked the government to deport him back to Denmark.
Bahrain has faced over a year of mass protests demanding democratic reform, which have been met by a brutal crackdown with backing from neighboring Saudi Arabia.
— Al-Akhbar, TAAN, Reuters