Manama - Thousands of Bahrainis held a peaceful anti-government protest in a suburb of the capital on Friday, demanding the release of political prisoners and political reforms in the troubled Gulf Arab state.
The march, in a district populated by the Shi'ite majority who have dominated protests over the past year, was organised by opposition parties and approved by police.
“Yes to democracy, no to dictatorship” and “We won't forget you, prisoners” were some of the slogans, while the protest leader chanted “No backdown, no concessions”. A helicopter observed the march from overhead and police restricted access to the area.
On Thursday, protesters clashed with police in the capital as police fired teargas, sound bombs and rubber bullets and youths threw stones and petrol bombs. Police then spent hours chasing teenagers through the old city's narrow alleyways.
Opposition supporters are trying to sustain pressure on the government, dominated by the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family, for more political reforms ahead of the Feb. 14 anniversary of a pro-democracy uprising last year.
Bahrain, a key U.S. and Saudi ally in their stand-off with Shi'ite Iran, has been in turmoil since the Arab Spring protest movement first erupted, followed by a government crackdown.
Clashes have continued in districts populated by Shi'ites but have worsened in recent weeks as the anniversary approaches.
A group of international legal experts commissioned by King Hamad to investigate the uprising and crackdown said in November that 35 people had died in the unrest up to June, when martial law was lifted.
But activists say the ongoing violence has taken the total to over 60, some from teargas or from being hit by cars in pursuit of youths. The government disputes the causes of death.
Opposition parties have tried to set themselves apart from youth activists who clash regularly with police by arranging marches and rallies in advance with the authorities. But many youths, angered by what they say is continued harsh policing, say this approach is not bringing results.
Activists want political reforms that would allow an elected government and reduced powers for the ruling family. Shi'ites also complain of economic marginalisation and settling of Sunni foreigners to boost the Sunni minority's numbers.
The government, which denies the allegations, says the unauthorised protesters are hooligans who disrupt economic recovery and put police lives in danger. It says it has taken steps to address political and other grievances, such as raising parliament's powers of scrutiny over ministers and budgets. - Reuters