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King pardons Shiite prisoners

MANAMA, Feb 22 – King Hamad ordered Shiite political prisoners freed in the latest bid to ignite talks to end a standoff with anti-regime protesters which has forced the Bahrain Grand Prix to be scrapped.

The king\’s decision came in response to calls at a large pro-government Sunni rally that pledged allegiance to the al-Khalifa dynasty but also urged him to release political prisoners, who are mostly from the Shiite majority.

Thousands of government supporters had thronged Fateh mosque in the capital, waving red-and-white Bahraini flags and chanting "Long live Abu Salman," an endearing name for King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa.

At the same time, mainly Shiite protesters camped out in their thousands in Pearl Square in the city centre, escalated their calls for an end to the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty which has ruled the Gulf kingdom for centuries.

The protesters have called a massive anti-regime demonstration for Tuesday, hoping for tens of thousands of people to converge on Pearl Square.

A senior opposition figure who was being tried in absentia said he planned to return home on Tuesday, adding yet more pressure on the royal family for reform.

Hassan Mashaima, a leader of the opposition Haq movement, told AFP before King Hamad\’s pardon he would return to Manama but had "no guarantees" he would not be arrested on arrival.

"I have decided to return to my country," said Mashaima, a Shiite who is currently in London and faces charges of terrorism in his native Bahrain, along with 24 others.

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The names of those included in the king\’s pardon will be announced on Tuesday, state news agency BNA reported.

Shiite opposition MP Abduljalil Khalil told AFP the prisoner release was an opposition demand so Crown Prince Salman could "prove his seriousness in calling for dialogue."

"We will stay here for as long as it takes and… will continue to offer food to all those here in the square," said Qassem Hassan, a university student who was giving fruit and water to protesters in Pearl Square.

 "We are determined to see our demands met."

As the turmoil continued, the kingdom issued a statement saying it would no longer host the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix on March 13.

"At the present time the country\’s entire attention is focused on building a new national dialogue for Bahrain," said the crown prince, who has been tasked by King Hamad with launching a wide-reaching dialogue with the opposition.

On Monday he pledged to embark on "real reforms, not just superficial" measures, in a statement aired by state television.

"There are confessional divisions in our country, which is not acceptable… what is necessary today is to close ranks, whether Sunni or Shiite," he said.

 Emboldened by Arab uprisings which have toppled the strongmen of Tunisia and Egypt since last month, Bahrain\’s opposition has raised the stakes, demanding a "real constitutional monarchy" and the government\’s resignation.

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A prisoner release was also a condition it set before talks could start.

Protesters in Pearl Square, epicentre of anti-regime protests that began on February 14, appeared unimpressed by the crown prince\’s calls for dialogue, calling instead for him to leave.

"Go away, Salman, we don\’t want you either," read one banner.

Last Thursday, police stormed the square early in the morning as protesters were asleep, killing four people and wounding scores.

A Friday return to the square was met with more gunfire and a Shiite demonstrator shot during the crackdown died of his wounds on Monday, an opposition official said.

His death brings to seven the number of demonstrators killed since February 14, according to an AFP tally based on relatives of victims and opposition officials.

Protesters have been flocking back to the square since Saturday when the army was ordered back to base.

Student protesters at the square on Monday chanted: "Sit-in, sit-in, until the regime falls."

One woman sitting on the grass in Pearl Square — renamed "Freedom Square" and "Martyrs\’ Square" by protesters — said the shock of Thursday\’s killings was still strong.

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"What happened on Thursday shocked us and broke our hearts," said Um Alawi, clad in full niqab and flanked by her daughters.

"No mother can keep her children from coming here," she told AFP. "Sacrifice is today the duty of all Bahrainis."

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