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Grand Prix races on as streets in Bahrain morph into battle zone

A demonstrator sprays graffiti Saturday during a protest in the village of Diraz, west of Bahrain's capital.
A demonstrator sprays graffiti Saturday during a protest in the village of Diraz, west of Bahrain's capital.Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters

Updated 3:25 a.m. ET Sunday:  Clashes between anti-government protesters and police broke out in Bahrain Sunday just hours before Formula One Grand Prix drivers were due start their race, witnesses told AFP, the French news agency.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades at Shiite protesters who responded by hurling rocks and fire bombs while chanting "Down with Hamad," in reference to Sunni King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, witnesses told AFP.

The king, who will attend Sunday's race, said in a statement overnight that he wanted "to make clear my personal commitment to reform and reconciliation in our great country. The door is always open for sincere dialogue amongst all our people.''

Demonstrators also called for the release of Shiite activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who began a hunger strike in early February and whose deteriorating health has raised fears he may die in prison.

In a Twitter message posted Sunday, Bahrain's interior ministry said Khawaja was in "good health" and would meet Denmark's ambassador today." Khawaja is a dual citizen of Bahrain and Denmark.

On Saturday, activist Salah Abbas Habib, 36, was found dead outside the capital, Manama. Habib's body was splayed on a corrugated iron rooftop, Reuters reported. Activists said he and other protesters had been beaten by police Friday night ahead of the auto race.

The auto race was canceled last year due to protests but Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa refused to be deterred this year as he unfurled a banner, "Unified: One Nation in Celebration." The government has spent $40 million to host the prestigious race, which has drawn 100,000 visitors.

The decision to hold the race despite ongoing protests made it the most controversial Grand Prix in the sport’s 60-year history.

NBC Sports: Formula One returns to divided Bahrain

Bahrain streets turned into a battle zone Saturday as masked protesters hurled gas bombs at police who fired back tear gas, Reuters reported. About 7,000 protesters took to the streets, carrying banners calling for democratic reforms. Some depicted Formula One race car drivers as police beating up protesters. Hundreds took refuge from the tear gas at a shopping mall.

Demonstrators crouch in a cloud of tear gas fired by police during a protest in Diraz, a village west of Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Police fired tear gas at protesters on the eve of a Formula One Grand Prix that demonstrators say glorifies a repressive government.Hamad I Mohammed / Reuters

Officials at the racetrack said they weren’t concerned by the violence.

"I am not sure that all that has been reported corresponds to the reality of what is happening in this country," International Automobile Federation president Jean Todt told reporters at the Bahrain circuit.

Sports reporters were invited to cover the race, but non-sports reporters were denied visas.  

Hunger strike
Anti-government protesters last year emulated other Arab Spring revolutions but were immediately quashed by the government. Activists in Bahrain, a small island off Saudi Arabia, didn’t stand much of a chance when Bahrain called in Saudi Arabian troops.  

Bahrain, a financial hub and modest oil producer, is an important U.S. military ally and host to the Fifth Fleet, the U.S. Navy's main outpost in the region. U.S. officials have remained mostly mum on the protests here.

The country is the only one of the Gulf's Arab monarchies with a Shiite majority, and the only one that was seriously threatened by last year's Arab Spring, which swept away the long-serving rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Habib's death infuriated the Shiite community, who say they have been marginalized by the Sunni ruling family. Habib’s funeral will likely take place Sunday, the day of the big race, which sets the stage for more riots.

This article includes reporting by Reuters. 

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