MANAMA, Bahrain – Bahraini anti-government activists clashed with security forces as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on Saturday, sending tear gas into a major shopping mall and bringing the capital’s streets to a standstill on the same day that authorities said a police officer died of injuries sustained from an earlier bombing.
The Interior Ministry said that the officer was one of two injured in what it called a “terrorist blast” on Friday in the village of Dair, near the country’s main airport. It did not identify the officer. In a second statement, the ministry characterized recent attacks against security forces as “urban guerrilla warfare.”
Chaos in the small Gulf island nation highlights deeper regional sectarian tensions that continue to roil Bahrain three years after the country’s majority Shiites began an Arab Spring-inspired uprising to demand greater political rights from the Sunni-led monarchy.
Neighboring Sunni-ruled Gulf countries with smaller Shiite populations, led by Saudi Arabia, sent troops to Bahrain in an effort to stem the uprising in 2011. More than 65 people have died in the unrest, but rights groups and others put the death toll higher.
Heeding calls by Bahrain’s main Shiite coalition al-Wefaq, around 15,000 Bahrainis marched in the capital Manama’s streets a day after the three-year anniversary of the start of the anti-government uprising.
The protesters marched for several miles before clashes erupted. Police fired tear gas at the crowd, which included women and children. The protesters carried the red and white Bahraini flag and signs that read “Democracy is the only solution.”
“I came to say that I refuse the way that my government treats people like me with discrimination,” prominent human rights activist Azhar Jaafar said. He was carrying the picture of 22-year-old protester Nabeel Rajab, who is one of around 3,000 people believed to be behind bars for politically-related charges.
“God is great,” the crowd chanted as youth protesters erected makeshift barriers to keep police back. They burnt tires to block the effects of the tear gas and threw rocks back at the security forces. Some protesters were seen carrying Molotov cocktails.
Efforts to restart on-and-off reconciliation talks between the Shiite-dominated opposition and the Sunni monarchy and its allies have so far failed to bring an end to simmering unrest in the country, an American ally that hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Activists frequently clash with police. Anti-government factions have been increasingly using small-scale bombs to target government forces.
Al-Wefaq said the protests Saturday were called to demand a democratic transition “in which the people are the source of all powers.” The group said the protest was also called to denounce the “free rein” given to security forces to exercise “heinous violations” against citizens.
The Interior Ministry says police have shown “incredible restraint in their use of force in dealing with violent rioters.”
Former member of parliament and opposition figure Abdul-Jalil Khalil told The Associated Press that a “serious dialogue” is necessary, but that it cannot happen so long activists are imprisoned.
“Today’s events come as a result of a culture of denial by authorities who insist on security solutions and refuse to enter into meaningful dialogue,” he said.