Image: Wounded Shiite Bahraini demonstrators at at a hospital Thursday
Joseph Eid  /  AFP - Getty Images
Wounded Shiite Bahraini demonstrators are seen Thursday at a hospital in Manama after beign assaulted by riot police. Two people were killed overnight as Bahrain's security forces moved in to clear protesters camped out in a central Manama square, relatives of the dead said.
msnbc.com news services
updated 2/17/2011 3:23:58 AM ET 2011-02-17T08:23:58

More than 50 armored vehicles were seen heading toward central Manama on Thursday shortly after police firing tear gas and wielding clubs cleared anti-government protesters from a landmark square.

Police destroyed a makeshift encampment at Pearl Square, which had become the hub for demands to bring sweeping political changes to the kingdom,

The main opposition group Al Wefaq said at least two people were killed in the pre-dawn assault, which was littered with flattened tents, trampled banners and broken glass. There was no official word on deaths or injuries, but hospitals reported dozens of people being brought in with wounds and respiratory problems from the tear gas.

Hours after police retook control of the plaza, the tiny island nation was in lockdown mode. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in some areas — the first sign of military involvement in the crisis. Police checkpoints were set up along main roadways and armed patrols moved through neighborhoods in an apparent attempt to thwart any mass gatherings.

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Barbed wire was put up around Pearl Square and a message from the Interior Ministry declared the protest camp "illegal." The air still carried the smell of tear gas more than four hours after the assault.

The blow by authorities marked a dramatic shift in tactics. It appeared Bahrain's leaders had sought to rein in security forces after clashes Monday that left at least two people dead and brought sharp criticism from Western allies — including the U.S. — which operates its main naval base in the Gulf from Bahrain.

'This is real terrorism'
Police held back Wednesday as tens of thousands of protesters crowded into the seaside square, dominated by a 300-foot monument to Bahrain's history as a pearl diving center.

After the crackdown early Thursday, protesters who were camped in the square overnight described police swarming in through a cloud of eye-stinging tear gas.

"They attacked our tents, beating us with batons," said Jafar Jafar, 17. "The police were lined up at the bridge overhead. They were shooting tear gas from the bridge."

Hussein Abbas, 22, was awakened by a missed call on his cell phone from his wife, presumably trying to warn him about reports that police were preparing to move in.

Slideshow: 2011 Bahrain uprising (on this page)

"Then all of a sudden the square was filled with tear gas clouds. Our women were screaming. ... What kind of ruler does this to his people? There were women and children with us!"

One man said he pretended to be unconscious to avoid further beatings from police.

ABC News said its correspondent, Miguel Marquez, was caught in the crowd and beaten by men with billy clubs, although he was not badly injured.

"Whoever took the decision to attack the protest was aiming to kill," Abdul Jalil Khalil, a parliamentarian with the Wefaq bloc told Reuters on Thursday. "This is real terrorism."

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The Egypt-inspired protests began Monday as a cry for the country's Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip, including hand-picking most top government posts, and open more opportunities for the country's majority Shiites, who have long complained of being blocked from decision-making roles or key posts in the military.

But the uprising's demands have steadily grown bolder. Many protesters called for the government to provide more jobs and better housing, free all political detainees and abolish a system that offers Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis from around the Middle East as a way to close the population gap with Shiites, who account for 70 percent of the population. Many of the newly minted nationals get jobs in security forces to further cement the number of presumed loyalists protecting the ruling system.

Increasingly, protesters also chanted slogans to wipe away the entire ruling dynasty that has led Bahrain for more than 200 years and is firmly backed by the Sunni sheiks and monarchs across the Gulf.

'We are peaceful!'
Although Bahrain is sandwiched between OPEC heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it has limited oil resources and depends heavily on its role as a regional financial hub and playground for Saudis, who can drive over a causeway to enjoy Bahrain's Western-style bars, hotels and beaches.

Social networking websites had been abuzz Wednesday with calls to press ahead with the protests. They were matched by insults from presumed government backers who called the demonstrators traitors and agents of Shiite powerhouse Iran. Some pointed out that Iranian hard-liners have called Bahrain the Islamic Republic's "14th province" because of its Shiite links.

The protest movement's next move is unclear, but the island nation has been rocked by street battles as recently as last summer. A wave of arrests of perceived Shiite dissidents touched off weeks of rioting and demonstrations.

Before the attack on the square, protesters had called for major rallies after Friday prayers. The reported deaths, however, could become a fresh rallying point. Thousands of mourners had turned out for the funeral processions of two other people killed in the protests earlier in the week.

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Mahmoud Mansouri, whose pants were torn in the mayhem, said police surrounded the camp and then quickly moved in.

"We yelled, "We are peaceful! Peaceful! The women and children were attacked just like the rest of us," he said. "They moved in as soon as the media left us. They knew what they're doing."

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The country's rulers scheduled an emergency parliament session for later Thursday. But it may only serve to highlight the country's divisions and reinforce its image as the most politically volatile in the Gulf.

The main Shiite opposition bloc, with 18 of the 40 seats, has said it will not return to the chamber until the protest demands are met.

Bloodshed
The occupation in Pearl Square, which began Tuesday, had become the nerve center of the first anti-government protests to reach the Arab Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Just hours before police moved in, the mood in the makeshift tent city was festive and confident.

People sipped tea, ate donated food and smoked apple- and grape-flavored tobacco from water pipes. The men and women mainly sat separately — the women a sea of black in their traditional dress. Some youths wore the red-and-white Bahraini flag as a cape.

After prayers Wednesday evening, a Shiite imam in the square had urged Bahrain's youth not to back down.

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"This square is a trust in your hands and so will you whittle away this trust or keep fast?" the imam said. "So be careful and be concerned for your country and remember that the regime will try to rip this country from your hand but if we must leave it in coffins then so be it!"

Across the city, government supporters in a caravan of cars waved national flags and displayed portraits of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

"Come join us!" they yelled into markets and along busy streets. "Show your loyalty."

Earlier Wednesday, thousands of mourners turned out for the funeral procession of 31-year-old Fadhel al-Matrook, the second known fatality from the protests. Later, in Pearl Square, his father Salman pleaded with protesters not to give up.

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"He is not only my son. He is the son of Bahrain, the son of this nation," he yelled. "His blood shouldn't be wasted."

The bloodshed has brought embarrassing rebukes from allies such as Britain and the United States. A statement from Bahrain's Interior Ministry said suspects have been "placed in custody" in connection with the two protester deaths from earlier in the week, but gave no further details.

The widening challenges to the region's political order — emboldened by the downfall of old-guard regimes in Tunisia and Egypt — also flared elsewhere in Arab world.

In Yemen, the embattled president flooded the ancient capital of Sanaa with more than 2,000 security forces to try to stamp out demonstrations that began nearly a week ago. They turned deadly Wednesday in the southern port of Aden, with two people killed in clashes with police.

In Libya, security forces fired rubber bullets and water cannons at hundreds of marchers in Benghazi, the second-largest city. Witnesses said some police stations were set on fire and one protester said he saw snipers on a roof of a security headquarters firing on protesters.

The unrest was triggered by the temporary detention Tuesday of an activist but quickly turned into a rare public challenge to the 42-year rule of Moammar Gadhafi.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: March

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  1. Bahraini Shiites women attend the funeral of Bahiya al-Aradi, holding portraits of her, in central Manama on Monday, March 22. Aradi, 51, went missing on March 16 evening, and a car that she drove was found the day after in al-Qadam village, west of Manama, with bloodstains on the driver's seat. She was pronounced dead on March 21 after being shot in the head. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bahraini opposition protesters carry the body of Abdulrasool al-Hajiri during his burial ceremony in Buri village, north of the capital, Manama, on Monday, March 21. Relatives accused the military of executing al-Hajiri after grabbing him at a checkpoint outside the village. Meanwhile, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa praised Saudi-led forces that he called in to help quell unprecedented unrest. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, right, meets with officers of the Gulf Cooperation Council's Peninsula Shield force late on March 20 in Manama. The monarch said Bahrain has foiled a "foreign plot" to target Gulf countries, in a possible reference to Iran, after security forces crushed Shiite-led unrest, the state news agency reported. (BNA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An injured Pakistani man takes refuge at a Pakistan club in Manama on March 19. He said that he was attacked by Shiite Bahrainis in a Shiite neighborhood on March 19. According to Pakistani men, Shiites have been attacking Asian nationals, accusing them of taking away their jobs. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Young women look at welts on the body of a young man walking through the streets of Daih, a Shiite suburb of Manama, on March 19. The youth said he was returning from nearby Sanabis, another Shiite area, where he said he and several others were beaten by riot police. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Bahraini soldiers with the portrait of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on their armored personnel carrier are seen at a checkpoint near Pearl Square in Manama on March 19. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The sisters of activist Ahmed Farhan mourn over his body in Sitra on March 18. Farhan, 29, was killed March 15 when police cracked down on opposition protesters in the town. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. An unidentified man shows the bullet that was allegedly pulled from the head of killed opposition protester Ahmed Farhan before his burial on March 18. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Shiite mourners wrap the body of Ahmed Farhan before his funeral in Sitra on March 18. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Shiite mourners carry the coffin of Ahmed Farhan during his funeral in Sitra on March 18, as thousands of anti-regime activists defied martial law to renew their pro-democracy protests. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A Shiite woman stands in front of the national flag as she watches the funeral procession of Ahmed Farhan on March 18. (Sergey Ponomarev / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A combination of pictures show the statue in the center of Pearl Square in Manama being torn down on March 18. The authorities demolished the statue, focal point and symbol of weeks of pro-democracy protests in the Gulf island kingdom. Drills and diggers cut away at the six bases of the statue for hours, until it collapsed into a mound of rubble and steel bars. Trucks stood by to take away the debris. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. People walk past a car damaged with shotgun pellets in Sitra on March 17. (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The Bahraini National Guard arrest a man who was later identified as journalist Alex Delmar-Morgan of the Wall Street Journal as he walked towards Pearl Square in Manama on March 16. Several hours later, Morgan was released. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Anti-government protestors gesture towards military vehicles near Pearl Square in Manama on March 16 after police killed at least two protesters and wounded dozens more as they assaulted a peaceful protest camp in the capital's Pearl Square, an opposition party official said. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Black smoke billows from burning tents in Pearl Square in Manama on March 16 after soldiers and riot police used tear gas and armored vehicles to drive out hundreds of anti-government protesters occupying the square. (Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Black smoke billows in Pearl Square on March 16 after a full-scale assault on the protesters occupying the square was launched at daybreak by soldiers and police. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces move in to Pearl Square to remove anti-government protesters on March 16. The GCC is a union comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Doctors form a human chain at Salmaniya Hospital in Manama fearing an attack by riot police on March 15. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A man from the Shiite Muslim village of Sitra, south of the Bahraini capital Manama is brought to the Salmaniya hospital late on March 15 after he was shot with pellets of buckshot, as the king imposed a state of emergency after bringing in foreign troops to help quell anti-regime protests. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Thousands of anti-government protesters march to the Saudi embassy in Manama on March 15, a day after a Saudi-led military force entered the country to defend its Sunni monarchy from a Shiite-led protest movement. The yellow sign center foreground reads: "The Saudi army came to protect the illegitimate government, not the aggrieved, legitimate nation" and the banner at right says: "The Saudi army's entry to Bahrain is an occupation we will never accept." (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Female anti-government protesters gather outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Manama on Tuesday, March 15. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Saudi Arabian troops cross the causeway leading to Bahrain on March 14. About 1,000 Saudi soldiers entered Bahrain to protect government facilities, a Saudi official source said, a day after mainly Shi'ite protesters overran police and blocked roads. (Reuters TV ) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Protesters confront riot police on a flyover near the Pearl Square in Manama on March 13. Bahraini riot police fired thick clouds of tear gas and pushed back protesters who blocked a main thoroughfare leading to the Bahrain Financial Harbour, a key business district in the Gulf Arab region's banking center. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Protesters set up makeshift roadblocks in Manama on March 13. Bahraini police clashed with demonstrators trying to occupy Manama's banking center, as protests spread from a peaceful sit-in to the heart of the strategic Gulf state's business district. (James Lawler Duggan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A protester gestures in front of riot police on an overpass near Pearl roundabout in Manama on March 13. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Opposition protesters take cover after being fired upon by police during an opposition march on Riffa, south of the capital Manama, on March 11. Police clashed with protesters on the outskirts of Riffa after pro-government supporters were able to pass through police lines and attack the opposition march, leaving hundreds injured according to the health ministry, mainly due to tear-gas inhalation. (Mazen Mahdi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Protesters holding signs that read: "Down With Al-Khalifa" (left and right) stand in front of the U.S. embassy during a demonstration where they accused the U.S. government of supporting dictatorships, in Manama on March 7. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A protester kisses a police officer after being told to clear the way for a female driver in Manama on March 3. The protester was blocking the road during an anti-government rally. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Anti-government protesters gesture in front of the main gate of the Interior Ministry during demonstrations in Manama on March 2. Protests in Bahrain are starting to make forays away from the central square in Manama and into different parts of the city. (Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Anti-government protesters march toward the Pearl roundabout, March 1, in the capital of Manama. Tens of thousands of Bahrainis, largely Shiites, participated in the march urging unity among Sunnis and Shiites in demanding political reform. (Hasan Jamali / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: TOPSHOTS

Bahraini Shiites women attend t
    Joseph Eid / AFP - Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (31) 2011 Bahrain uprising - March
  2. Image: Bahraini protesters sit and rest in their tent at Pearl Square in Bahraini capital of Manama
    Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters
    Slideshow (63) 2011 Bahrain uprising - February

Video: Bahrain responds to protests with violence

  1. Closed captioning of: Bahrain responds to protests with violence

    >>> surfaced of the moment within the last few hours when an abc news reporter was beaten by bahrain police covering what is happening in pearl square. listen.

    >> no, no, no. journalist, journalist. i'm going.

    >> i just got beat, rather badly by a gang of thugs. i am now in a marketplace near the hotel where people are cowering in buildings. these people are not screwing around. they are going to clear that square tonight ahead of any protests friday. the government clearly doesn't want this to get any bigger.

    >> that is footage from bahrain tonight within just the last couple hours. police moving in on protesters, among them, women and children who were sleeping in the main square in

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