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|Bahrain Army in Charge After Police Shoot Protesters|
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN 4:40 PM ET
As the army asserted control of the streets with tanks and soldiers, the once-peaceful protesters transformed into a mob of angry mourners after at least five were killed.
|The New York Times|
February 17, 2011
Bahrain Army in Charge After Police Shoot Protesters
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
MANAMA, Bahrain — The army took control of this city on Thursday, except at the main hospital, where thousands of people gathered screaming, crying, collapsing in grief, just hours after the police opened fired with birdshot, rubber bullets and tear gas on pro-democracy demonstrators camped in Pearl Square.
As the army asserted control of the streets with tanks and heavily armed soldiers, the once peaceful protesters were transformed into a mob of angry mourners chanting slogans like “death to the king,” while the opposition withdrew from the Parliament and demanded that the government step down.
But for those who were in Pearl Square in the early morning hours, when the police opened fired without warning on thousands who were sleeping there, it was a day of shock and disbelief. Many of the hundreds taken to the hospital were wounded by shotgun blasts, doctors said, their bodies speckled with pellets or bruised by rubber bullets or police clubs.
In the morning, there were three bodies already stretched out on metal tables in the morgue at Salmaniya Medical Complex: Ali Mansour Ahmed Khudair, 53, dead, with 91 pellets pulled from his chest and side; Isa Abd Hassan, 55, dead, his head split in half; Mahmoud Makki Abutaki, 22, dead, 200 pellets of birdshot pulled from his chest and arms.
Doctors said that at least two others had died and that several patients were in critical condition with serious wounds. Muhammad al-Maskati, of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said that he had received at least 20 calls from frantic parents searching for young children lost in the chaos of the attack.
A surgeon, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals, said that for hours on Thursday the Health Ministry prevented ambulances even from going to the scene to aid victims. The doctor said that in the early morning, when the assault was still under way, police officers beat a paramedic and a doctor and refused to allow medical staff to attend to the injured.
“They refused to let ambulances into the roundabout to help the injured,” the doctor said.
News outlets in Bahrain reported that the health minister, Faisal al-Hamar, resigned after doctors staged a demonstration to protest his order barring ambulances from going to the square.
In the bloodstained morgue, Ahmed Abutaki, 29, held his younger brother’s cold hand, stroking his arm and tearfully recalling the last time they spoke Wednesday night. “He said, ‘This is my chance, to have a say, so that maybe our country will do something for us,”’ he recalled of his brother’s decision to camp out in Pearl Square. “My country did do something; it killed him.”
Emotions ran high in this small Persian Gulf nation, even as the foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, defended the police action as a last resort meant to pull Bahrain back from the “brink of a sectarian abyss.” Tanks rolled into the city center, many stores remained closed, sidewalks and public spaces stayed eerily empty.
There was a collective anxiety gripping the country as it waited to see whether the opposition would challenge the government’s edict to stay off the streets, and if it did, whether the government would follow through on its threat to use “every strict measure and deterrent necessary to preserve security and general order.”
There seemed little chance for now that the confrontation would fade away, as both sides said they would not back down.
“You will find members of Al Wefaq willing to be killed as our people have been killed,” said Khalil Ebrahim al-Marzooq, one of 18 opposition party members to announce Thursday that they had resigned their seats in Parliament. “We will stand behind the people until the complete fulfillment of our demands.”
Arab leaders have been badly shaken in recent days, with entrenched presidents in Egypt and Tunisia ousted by popular uprisings and with demonstrations flaring around the region. And now as the public’s sense of empowerment spread, the call to change has reached into this Persian Gulf kingdom. That has raised anxiety in Saudi Arabia, connected to Bahrain by a bridge, and Kuwait, as well, both Sunni-governed states with restive Shiite populations. Officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council met here to discuss how to handle the crisis.
The international community also weighed in, concerned as yet another Arab leader decided to try using lethal force to put down peaceful opposition protests. Bahrain is small, but it is a strategic ally of the United States, which bases its Fifth Fleet here, and the royal family has long been an ally in efforts to fight terrorism and push back the regional influence of Iran.
But here in the streets, people were not focused on geopolitics. The events centered on very domestic demands for democracy, rule of law and social justice. The island nation is 70 percent Shiite and is governed by a king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who is Sunni. When protests started on Monday, the demands were for a constitutional monarchy, but in the anger of the day the chants evolved into calls for tearing down the whole system.
“Death to Khalifa! Death to Khalifa!” chanted a frantic crowd massed in the driveway of the hospital. “Bring down the government!” cried out the thousands of men and women. Several people collapsed, their eyes rolling back, in the frenzied moment.
The fearful and hostile mood was set the night before, when the police opened fire. Doctors, victims and witnesses gave a detailed account of how the police assault unfolded, revealing details of a calculated, coordinated attack that closed in from all sides, offering no way out.
“They had encircled us and they kept shooting tear gas and live rounds,” said Ali Muhammad Abdel Nabi, 25, as he rested in a hospital bed after having been hit by shotgun pellets on both his legs and his shoulder. “The circle got closer and closer.”
Doctors at the hospital said that 226 demonstrators had been recorded as being treated in the hospital and that many more were given aid on the run.
At the scene, the doctors said protesters were handcuffed with thick plastic binders, laid on the wet ground and stomped on by the police.
“I said, they will attack, and they did,” said Hussein Mohammed, 39, a member of Al Wefaq. “It’s a slaughter.”
The hospital corridors were packed with people angry and crying, the beds filled with many wounded by shotgun blasts. Hassan Mohammed, 19, who also had shotgun pellets in his legs, said that after the assault he saw uniformed men tossing the wounded into refrigerator trucks, though he had no idea where they were taken. There was no way to confirm his account.
Outside the hospital, the police stayed away, as the fuming crowd of mourners remained on the medical campus. But not far away, in the symbolic center of the city, beneath the towering statue of a pearl on a setting, soldiers patrolled, armored vehicles blocked all arteries, and a circle of barbed wire was laid around the square. Within 24 hours, the site of the first tolerated expression of public dissent had been transformed into a memorial to fear and death.
“We are a people of mourners now, we have nothing,” said Taghreed Hussein, 35, as she and her friends crowded the hospital waiting in grief.
Nadim Audi contributed reporting.