Security forces reduce Bahrain's pro-democracy camp to rubble

AFP , Wednesday 16 Mar 2011

Pearl Square in Manama cleared by security forces, killing three protesters

Tents are seen engulfed with fire as Gulf Cooperation Council forces move into Pearl Square to evacuate anti-government protesters, in Manama, Wednesday, (Reuters).

Bahrain's landmark Pearl Square resembled a scorched battlefield Wednesday after hundreds of heavily armed police assaulted a pro-democracy camp and sent activists fleeing for their lives.

Hours earlier the road axis named after the island state's historic pearl trade had been teeming with protesters hoping to share in the "Arab spring" of democratic revolt sweeping the region.

But by mid-morning all that remained were the skeletons of burnt tent frames, exploded cooking gas canisters and the debris of a month-old sit-in that briefly gave voice to calls for change in the tiny Gulf kingdom.

"There was no way to put up any resistance," one opposition activist told AFP, requesting anonymity.

Three protesters were killed in the attack and dozens others were injured, mostly from inhaling tear gas, according to opposition leaders. The interior ministry said two police were killed.

It could have been a massacre but for the protesters' decision to retreat instead of confronting the heavily armed security forces, who opened fire with tear gas and shot guns, and were backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters.

Shortly after daybreak the armoured vehicles rolled slowly in from the seaside, while dozens of buses disgorged anti-riot police in full battle gear. Light-brown army tanks followed and took positions by the shore.

As a small group of youths stood their ground a bloody confrontation appeared imminent. But they melted away quickly as tear gas canisters began to fall.

The police then advanced slowly into the square, led by two trucks which cleared makeshift barriers in the way.

The attack from only one direction appeared to have been a deliberate move to allow the protesters to escape into surrounding neighbourhoods.

No one, it seemed, wanted a bloodbath which could ignite sectarian tensions in the Shiite-majority, Sunni-ruled country.

Strong winds blew the acrid tear gas throughout the area as fires leapt quickly from one tent to another. The government said "saboteurs" in the square had set the tents alight to slow down the security forces' advance.

The pearl sculpture in the middle of the roundabout - a symbol of a time before Bahrain's economy was transformed by oil - was engulfed in black smoke as the tents melted and cooking gas cylinders went off.

Police with rifles combed the area and fanned out into the streets chasing protesters. Others armed with hammers and batons smashed and searched cars parked nearby.

A wooden podium, where the protesters had stood to slam the 230-year rule of the Al-Khalifa dynasty in speeches, was destroyed.

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