Nightly News | February 17, 2011
>>> good evening. there's never been a time like this, especially not in the middle east . but it's an unmistakable wave of empowerment, people driven protests now in places, three countries for starters, yemen, bahrain and libya, that are not used to this sort of thing and are reacting accordingly. in some cases, violently. in libya alone, reports that 20 protesters were killed. the biggest news, an overnight crackdown. police killing protesters in bahrain , a small island chain of a nation. population about 1 million . almost half the people there from other countries. the whole nation roughly four times the size of washington, d.c. the king and the ruling structure, sunni muslim , but the population, 70% shiite. importantly, it's the home of the entire u.s. navy fifth fleet of vital importance to the united states . our chief foreign correspondent, richard engel , has made his way there from cairo. he's with us tonight from our cnbc bureau in bahrain . richard, good evening.
>> reporter: good evening, brian. this crackdown today was in many ways a preemptive strike by bahrain , this country's way of saying this small but strategically important country will not go the way of egypt and tunis tunisia, but tonight many here feel the crackdown went too far. the protesters are calling what happened an unprovoked massacre. after unrest that had been building all week. on monday, a demonstrator was killed by security forces . at his funeral the next day, another protester was killed. [ speaking in foreign language ]
>> reporter: bahrain 's king made a rare address to the nation, offering condolences and calling for an investigation. [ chanting ]
>> reporter: but the protesters didn't accept it. they called for an egypt-style sit-in in manama's pearl square. thousands gathered last night. it was peaceful, they were intense. quiet but defiant protests of men, women and families. but at 3:00 a.m . this morning, the crackdown began. police and armored vehicles moved on the square. riot police rushed in, swinging clubs, firing buckshot and bottles of tear gas . there was absolute panic. we did not harm anyone, we were sleeping when they surprised us and attacked us, he said. some protesters claim they were hit by buckshot at close range. others were crushed in a stampede, as protesters scrambled to escape. at least four people were killed and hundreds injured. it was an emotional scene at the hospital today. we watched with our own eyes as they killed the protesters, this woman said. but today the government offered a different version of events. the foreign minister said troops woke the protesters, warned them to leave, and then left side streets open so they could escape.
>> police took every care possible, but this is -- there is nothing that guarantees that a mishap could happen, and that, unfortunately, led to death.
>> reporter: state television also showed weapons it claims were found in the protesters' tents and pictures of bahraini police injured by the protesters. but this is not just a pro- democracy movement against the government. the protesters are shiite, and claim they're treated like second class citizens by the sunni royal family , a sectarian struggle that has the region on edge. bahrain 's powerful patron, saudi arabia , a sunni strong hold, would do almost anything to prevent shiite empowerment in the middle east . the united states also uses the fifth fleet based here to protect the oil lanes of the persian gulf and keep a close watch on iran. today secretary clinton offered a careful rebuke of bahrain 's crackdown.
>> we call on restraint from the government.
>> reporter: but bahrain appeared to show little restraint last night. the potential flashpoint tomorrow, brian, when families receive the bodies of the victims.
>> richard engel starting us off in bahrain tonight. richard, thank