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Bahrain riot police fire tear gas at protesters

Bahrain's Sunni rulers have opened talks with the Shiite opposition they crushed.
Bahrain's Sunni rulers have opened talks with the Shiite opposition they crushed.Hassan Ammar / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Riot police in Bahrain fired tear gas at anti-government protesters denouncing reconciliation talks between the Gulf kingdom's rulers and the Shiite-led opposition on Saturday just hours after the dialogue began.

The renewed unrest — described by witnesses — underlines the deep tensions on the island nation after more than four months of harsh security crackdowns by the Western-allied monarchy.

It also points to the political risks for Bahrain's biggest Shiite party, Al Wefaq, which decided to join the U.S.-encouraged talks despite widespread anger among the majority Shiites — who claim they suffer systematic discrimination at the hands of the Sunni dynasty ruling Bahrain.

The protesters gathered near a landmark square in Manama, which was the epicenter of the Shiite uprising for greater rights that began in February. The witnesses said several hundred marchers chanted "No dialogue" just hours after a ceremony to open the talks in the strategic nation, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

The witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of harassment by authorities.

There were no immediate reports of injuries during the demonstrations that started after a funeral for a protester, who died on Thursday in a military hospital from injuries sustained during the unrest in March.

The death of 30-year-old protester, Majid Ahmed Mohammed, brings to 32 the number of those killed since February. Bahrain's Shiites account for 70 percent of the population, but say they face second-class status such as being effectively frozen out of top political and military posts.

Hundreds of opposition supporters, activists and others have been taken into custody and many other perceived protest backers have been purged from jobs and universities.

Washington has strongly pushed for dialogue in Bahrain. The Sunni monarchy has made token concessions ahead of the so-called "national dialogue," including sanctioning an international investigation that will include probes into the conduct of security forces during the revolt.

The White House said Saturday that it welcomes the formation of a commission of inquiry into the events and the launch of the political dialogue. "We urge all Bahrainis to seize this opportunity to forge a more just future together," said the statement.

But the government has not relented on opposition demands to free all detainees and clear others convicted of protest-linked charges, including eight activists sentenced to life in prison last month.

Parliament Speaker Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Dhahrani opened the forum Saturday by hailing the gathering as "a historic opportunity for all of us to overcome this critical stage of the nation's history through dialogue."

He said the goal is to bring "together different points of view to develop common visions" and added that the Sunni rulers are at the talks "without preconditions."

After a 45-minute ceremonial session, the approximately 300 participants adjourned. The talks are to last until the end of July, with delegates meeting three times a week.

Al Wefaq's participation "adds an important voice of Bahrain's political opposition to a process that has the potential to serve as a vehicle for reform and reconciliation," Toner added.

Al Wefaq's three delegates who attended Saturday's session, were not optimistic the dialogue will lead to meaningful reforms.

"It started as a monologue," said one of the three, Bushra al-Hindi. "The agenda has been previously set by the government in order to exclude talks about critical issues, such as moving along with a process that will reshape the country into a constitutional monarchy."

Al Wefaq's leader, Sheik Ali Salman, had told supporters on Friday that his group will stick to its calls for the Sunni monarchy to loosen the grip on power and allow people to elect a government.

Delegates from Bahrain's secular opposition party, Al Waad, also attended the talks. They held a picture of their leader, Ibrahim Sharif — the most prominent Sunni politician who has been imprisoned along with 20 other opposition leaders for plotting to overthrow Bahrain's 200-year-old monarchy.

Amid the crackdowns, Al Wefaq staged a mass resignation of its 18 lawmakers in the 40-member lower house of parliament. Two former lawmakers are in custody and on trial on anti-state crimes. Al Wefaq said one of them, Jawad Firooz, was listed on the party's five-member delegation to the talks although he didn't attend Saturday's opening session because he remains in detention.