MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Bahraini security forces fanned out in unprecedented numbers on Tuesday as the island nation was marking the one-year anniversary of the Shiite-led uprising against its Sunni rulers.
On the eve of the anniversary, violence erupted at a rally in the Gulf nation’s capital of Manama as opposition supporters staged the largest attempt in months to retake Pearl Square, the city’s central roundabout that had served as the epicenter of weeks of anti-government protests last year, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts.
Police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters on Monday evening and protesters hurled firebombs and rocks at security forces. No serious injuries were reported.
Shiites account for about 70 percent of Bahrain’s population of some 525,000 people, but say they have faced decades of discrimination and are blocked from top political and security posts.
The kingdom’s Sunni rulers have promised reforms, although they refused to make the far-reaching changes the protesters and the main Shiite group, Al Wefaq, have demanded. These include ending the monarchy’s ability to select the government, set key state policies and appoint most of the parliament members.
The government accused Al Wefaq of turning what would have been a peaceful march on Monday into a riot.
Al Wefaq rejected the claim, and said Tuesday that the "unfounded accusations" are part of the rulers’ efforts to delegitimize people’s demands for greater freedoms and discredit the group that has led the protests during last year’s uprising.
"They have used excessive force against the people throughout all this time, but people keep coming back to the streets to insist on their demand to have a role in the decisions about their country," Abdul Jalil Khalil, a former Al Wefaq parliament member told The Associated Press on the phone.
He said the group was planning another rally later Tuesday to mark the revolt’s anniversary.
"After years of broken promises for change, Bahrain exploded last year," Khalil said on the phone. "We are still here and we want serious solution and meaningful reform."
The now heavily guarded Pearl Square holds great symbolic value for Bahrain’s opposition movement, and protesters have repeatedly tried to reoccupy it. But authorities have effectively locked off the capital to demonstrations since March.
Authorities said many protesters on Monday left the rally’s authorized route in Manama, turning it into a riot after police arrived. They said Al Wefaq was responsible for the violence, because it failed to "control the crowd (and) that jeopardized the safety of the people along a busy main road."
Legal procedures will be taken against the organizers of the march, Tuesday’s government statement also said.
In March, Al Wefaq staged a mass resignation of its 18 lawmakers in the 40-member lower house of parliament to protest punishing crackdowns on the opposition after authorities imposed martial law to quell protests.
Bahrain lifted emergency rule in June and the Sunni rulers made token concessions ahead of the U.S.-supported reconciliation talks between the monarchy and the opposition. The so-called national dialogue began in July, but Al Wefaq delegates pulled out of the talks, saying the government was not willing to discuss political reform.
Since then, no talks between the monarchy and the opposition have taken place, Khalil said. Street battles between security forces and protesters still flare up almost every day in the predominantly Shiite villages around the capital.
At least 40 people were killed during months of unprecedented political unrest in Bahrain, the Gulf country hardest hit by upheaval during last year’s Arab Spring protests. Neighboring Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled Gulf states dispatched troops to Bahrain in March to help crush the protests after the rulers imposed martial law.
Surk reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.