Video: Violent crackdown on Bahrain protesters

  1. Closed captioning of: Violent crackdown on Bahrain protesters

    >>> and as we've been reporting, as the world's attention has been focused on the japan disaster, some of the arab nations are heating up again. while gadhafi has been gobbling up territory, taking it back from the rebels, bearing down on their head quarter city of benghazi, in bahrain protesters are rising up again. that government is so concerned they asked the saudis to send troops. nbc's john ray is in bahrain with more on the crackdown.

    >> reporter: the protesters tents burn, all hope for peaceful change disappearing in thick plumes of smoke. the government regained control, cleansing it says the capital of criminals and saboteurs. nobody knows how many have been killed or injured today but the protesters have been thrown out of the square. as military helicopters hovered menacingly overhead, we came across people sheltering in a side street , showing us the tear gas canisters and rubber bullets it endured. security forces blocked off the city's main hospital. at another clinic, we met a young woman shot in the shoulder and in the hand. the protests have pitted the them against the rulers. they have instituted martial law and called in military reinforcements from saudi arabia . a move condemned today by their ally, the united states , and i iran, their rival power in the gulf. john ray , nbc news, bahrain .

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
CNBC staff and wire reports
updated 3/16/2011 8:39:42 PM ET 2011-03-17T00:39:42

Soldiers and riot police expelled hundreds of protesters from a landmark square in Bahrain's capital on Wednesday, using tear gas and armored vehicles to try to subdue the growing movement challenging the 200-year-old monarchy.

At least five people were killed as clashes flared across the kingdom, according to witnesses and officials.

U.S. officials warned Bahrain against violent crackdowns.

The unrest that began last month has increasingly showed signs of a sectarian showdown: More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shiites and they complain of discrimination at the hands of the Sunni royal family, the al-Khalifa. Most Shiites want a constitutional monarchy but calls by some hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed the Sunni minority, which fears that unrest could serve non-Arab Shiite power Iran.

Bing / msnbc.com

Wednesday's full-scale assault launched at dawn in Pearl Square, the center of the uprising inspired by Arab revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

A member of parliament from the largest Shiite Muslim opposition group denounced the government assault as a declaration of war on the Shiite community.

"This is war of annihilation. This does not happen even in wars and this is not acceptable," Abdel Jalil Khalil, the head of Wefaq's 18-member parliament bloc, said. "I saw them fire live rounds, in front of my own eyes."

Hours later, security forces were picking through burned debris and other remains of the protest camp.

'Hunting' Shiites
In another area of Bahrain, one witness described police in a village "hunting" Shiites in what could be part of a wider campaign of intimidation.

The king's announcement Tuesday of a three-month emergency rule and the crackdown on Pearl Square sent a message that authorities will strike back with overwhelming force.

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The United States on Wednesday objected to what it called "excessive force and violence" used against Bahrain protesters and said it had "raised our concerns directly" with Bahrain, the State Department said in a message on Twitter.

The U.S. is a close ally of the island nation, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

In Washington, President Barack Obama called both King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to express deep concern over the violence in Bahrain. He "stressed the need for maximum restraint," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters. Obama "also stressed the importance of a political process as the only way to peacefully address the legitimate grievances of Bahrainis and to lead to a Bahrain that is stable, just, more unified and responsive to its people."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the situation "alarming" and said Bahrain and neighbors were on "the wrong track" by trying to quell unrest with troops instead of reform.

"We have deplored the use of force," Clinton told reporters in Cairo before flying to Tunis. "We have said not only to the Bahrainis but to our Gulf partners that we do not think security is the answer to what is going on."

Bahrain has been gripped by its worst unrest since the 1990s after protesters took to the streets last month, inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.

Unlike those countries, where the mainly Sunni populations united against the regime, Bahrain is split along sectarian lines, raising the risk of a slide into civil conflict.

The latest crackdown raised the stakes in the crisis between the country's Shiite majority and its dominant Sunni minority.

A 1,000 soldier Saudi-led force from Gulf allies — fearful for their own regimes and worried about Shiite Iran's growing influence — highlighted that the conflict in Bahrain was part of region-wide hostilities between Sunni Gulf Arab countries and non-Arab Shiite Iran.

Security forces barred journalists and others from moving freely around Manama and other areas of the country a day after emergency rule was declared. A 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. curfew was imposed in most of the country.

Conflicting accounts
Witnesses said at least two protesters were killed when the square was stormed. Officials at Ibn Nafees Hospital said a third protester who later died from wounds. The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity because of fears of reprisals from authorities.

But a government statement said the only fatalities during the raid were two policemen who were "repeatedly run over by three vehicles containing protesters leaving the fringes of the scene." The Interior Ministry also said a policeman was killed late Tuesday.

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The government did not say whether the offensive included soldiers from other Gulf nations.

State TV broadcast video showing military vehicles in the square flying Bahrain's red-and-white flag as security officials moved through the wreckage of the encampment, set up at the base of a towering monument to the country's history as a pearl diving center. The video showed the ground littered with debris, including satellite dishes and charred tent poles.

Helicopters crisscrossed over the square, which was cleared by security forces late last month but was later retaken by protesters after a deadly confrontation with army units.

During the attack, protesters fled for cover into side streets and security forces blocked main roads into Manama. Mobile phones were apparently jammed in central Manama during the height of the attack and Internet service remained at a crawl.

Hamid Zuher, a 32-year-old protester who slept at the square, said riot police first moved in on foot.

"They fired tear gas and then opened fire," Zuher said. "We lifted our arms and started saying 'Peaceful, Peaceful.' Then we had to run away."

The government presented a different story, saying security forces came under attack from about 250 "saboteurs" hurling Molotov cocktails and later fired back with tear gas. It said no live ammunition was used.

Clashes in Bahraini villages
Ambulances had moved toward Pearl Square Wednesday morning, CNBC said, though there were reports that they weren't allowed to access the roundabout and that the injured weren't able to receive adequate medical care because the military had sealed off hospitals.

In Shiite villages, people went to mosques and held protest prayers. Others lit fires in anger. Clashes were reported in other mostly Shiite areas of the country, where traffic was tightly controlled by military forces in an apparent attempt to prevent gatherings or a surge of people toward the capital.

Militias reportedly opened fire at random in mainly Shiite areas of Bahrain, where guns are banned, leading to speculation that the militias were actually security forces, CNBC reported. Royal sources said the fighting was only between civilians, who were armed.

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Bahraini defense forces were poised to stamp out any unrest in the town of Hidd, sources told CNBC, with troops stacking sandbags mounted with 50-caliber guns on top at the entrance to the town.

In the Busaiteen area, masked youths set up checkpoints, halting traffic, CNBC said. Locals set up medical centers in come villages because they had not been allowed to take the wounded to hospitals, CNBC reported.

In Sitra, resident Rania Ali said police were charging after Shiites even as they ran for shelter.

"I'm scared. I can't move from my house," said Ali, who is a Sunni married to a Shiite man. "I saw them chasing Shiites like they were hunting ... It is a cleansing war against our Shiite brothers."

Roadblocks around the country also prevented injured protesters from reaching the main state hospital, which was working on generator power. The extent of the blackout in Manama was not immediately clear.

The official Bahrain news agency said the emergency rule bans "rallies and disrupting the public order," restricts movement and could imposes curfew.

Regional rivalries
For Bahrain's authorities, clearing Pearl Square would be more of a symbolic blow against protesters than a strategic victory. Opposition groups can still mobilize marches and take other actions against the leadership.

Bahrain's sectarian clash is increasingly viewed as an extension of the region's rivalries between the Gulf Arab leaders and Iran. Washington, too, is pulled deeply into the Bahrain's conflict because of its key naval base — the Pentagon's main Gulf counterweight to Iran's growing military ambitions.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday denounced the Bahraini government's crackdown and the presence of the Saudi-led force.

"The people's demands for change must be respected. How is it possible to stop waves of humanity with military force?" Ahmadinejad said, according to Iranian state TV.

Iran has no direct political links with Bahrain's main Shiite groups, but Iranian hard-liner in the past have called the tiny island nation that "14th Province" of the Islamic Republic.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had expressed alarm over "provocative acts and sectarian violence," and said she telephoned Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saudi to stress the need for the foreign forces to promote dialogue.

The Pentagon has authorized military families and civilians with non-emergency jobs to leave Bahrain.

The international credit agency Fitch Ratings cut its rating on Bahrain's sovereign wealth fund Mumtalakat by two notches Wednesday.

In mostly Shiite southern Iraq, more than 4,000 people joined a march calling for the Arab League to halt attacks on Bahraini civilians. "Bahrain is the Gaza of the Gulf," some chanted in reference to past Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip.

The Associated Press, Reuters and CNBC contributed to this report.

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