Image: Hassan Meshaima, a Bahraini Shiite opposition leader
Hasan Jamali  /  AP
Hassan Meshaima, a Bahraini Shiite opposition leader, speaks to thousands of anti-government protesters hours after he returns from self-imposed exile in London, at the Pearl roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, on Feb. 26. Meshaima was being tried in absentia on charges of trying to overthrow the regime, but the case against him and 24 others was dropped by the King in response to mass protests in the tiny Gulf island kingdom.
By
updated 2/27/2011 10:29:32 AM ET 2011-02-27T15:29:32

Thousands of protesters streamed through Bahrain's diplomatic area and other sites Sunday, chanting against the country's king and rejecting his appeals for talks to end the tiny Gulf nation's nearly two-week-old crisis.

At least three processions paralyzed parts of the capital, Manama, and appeared to reflect a growing defiance of calls by Bahrain's rulers to hold talks to ease the increasingly bitter showdown in the strategic island nation, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

"No dialogue until the regime is gone," marchers chanted as they moved through the highly protected zone of embassies and diplomatic compounds. No violence was reported.

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Other marchers shouted slogans to oust Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and plastered fences with flyers denouncing security forces for attacks that have killed seven people since the first protests Feb. 14 inspired by revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.

Bahrain is among the most politically volatile nations in the Gulf — with majority Shiites claiming widespread discrimination by the Sunni rulers — and was the first in the region to be hit by the demands for reform sweeping the Arab world.

But there are signs that the protest movement could widen in the wealthiest corner of the Middle East.

Riot police in Oman clashed with pro-democracy protesters Sunday, killing at least one in a sharp escalation of tensions in the tightly ruled nation. Demonstrations are also called for next month in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, one of the political pillars of Middle East.

Some of the marchers in Bahrain claim that authorities still hold more than 200 political prisoners despite the release of about 100 political detainees last week. There were no reports of violence.

The embattled monarchy is seeking talks with opposition groups. Government spokeswoman Maysoon Sabkar stressed that there is no deadline for the offer of dialogue.

But the Shiite-led rebellion still appears more interested in showings its strength on the streets than moving into negotiations.

Shiites, who account for about 70 percent of the country's 525,000 people, have long complained of discrimination and other abuses by the Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries.

Bahrain's leaders, meanwhile, face pressure from other Gulf leaders to stand firm. Many Sunnis across the region fear that conceding significant power to Bahrain's Shiites could open the door for greater influence by Shiite powerhouse Iran.

On Sunday, one group of protesters marched along a central highway past government buildings and new skyscrapers, including the strikingly modern triangular World Trade Center. Other joined in a motorcade waving the red-and-white Bahrain flag and showing images of those killed in the clashes.

As in previous days, men led the marchers and were followed by women dressed in black abayas.

Small numbers of police vehicles were seen along the way, but authorities did not intervene. A number of businessmen in shirts and slacks, others in the traditional white dishdasha robes, watched silently as demonstrators passed.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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