MANAMA, Mar 16 – Hundreds of Bahraini riot police firing buckshot and tear gas canisters drove pro-democracy demonstrators out of Manama\’s Pearl Square Wednesday, clearing the symbolic heart of the uprising.
The action came a day after King Hamad, boosted by the arrival in the tiny island state of armed forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, declared a three-month state of emergency in a bid to quell the protests.
Police arrived early morning in tanks, troop transport vehicles and buses before moving in on the mainly Shiite Muslim demonstrators, who have been camped out in the square for a month to press for political reform.
Thick clouds of smoke rose up over the square after several of the protesters\’ tents were set on fire. Explosions believed to be caused by the protesters\’ cooking gas cannisters also rang out.
As helicopters hovered overhead and the demonstrators fled through side streets, riot police tore down the remaining tents and took up positions around the square.
Troops then entered the financial centre to clear it of illegal roadblocks and the handfuls of protesters still remaining after clashes there on Sunday injured more than 200 people.
Shots were heard as military helicopters circled overhead and troops escorted a bulldozer into the Financial Harbour business complex, the centre of a regional finance hub that hosts major international banks and multinational corporations.
Clutches of demonstrators could be heard chanting "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) and some set fire to rubbish bins in the streets, but the area was largely deserted.
The protesters are demanding democratic reform from the Sunni dynasty that has ruled the strategic archipelago — home of the US Fifth Fleet — for more than 200 years.
Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the main Shiite opposition group backing the protesters, said the Sunni-led regime was acting like Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi and using "extreme brutality" against ordinary people.
"We reiterate the peaceful character of the uprising despite the thugs that have been deployed by the regime," he said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television.
He also appealed to the United Nations to to "intervene to protect civilians from forces that are dealing with them like enemies."
Hundreds of demonstrators had spent a tense night in Pearl Square, many fearing another police assault on their camp like one last month, in the early days of the uprising, in which four protesters were killed.
The square has become one of the focal points of the protest movement that is pressing the country\’s Sunni rulers for democratic reforms in the wake of popular uprisings that toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
The security force swoop came despite repeated appeals from Bahrain\’s ally the United States that the kingdom\’s problems could only be resolved politically.
"Our advice to all sides is that they must take steps now to negotiate toward a political resolution," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday.
She was speaking in Cairo after two people died and hundreds were wounded in clashes between anti-regime protesters and Bahrain\’s security forces.
A medic in the village of Sitra, south of the capital, told AFP that more than 200 people had been hospitalised with buckshot wounds.
At least the same number had been treated for tear gas inhalation, and the hospital itself was under siege by armed gangs and security forces targeting Shiites, he said.
Saudi-led military forces have rolled across the causeway from Saudi Arabia\’s Eastern Province to help Manama tackle the pro-democracy protests.
Iran\’s foreign ministry said it had told Manama, Riyadh and Washington that military intervention by Gulf troops in Bahrain was "unacceptable," the country\’s state television\’s website reported.
Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to express concern over the crackdown on protesters and the foreign intervention.
"The people of Bahrain have demands, which are legitimate and are being expressed peacefully," Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said.
Any violence in response to these legitimate demands should be stopped."
In response to Iran\’s protests, Bahrain recalled its ambassador in Tehran.