MANAMA, Bahrain — Riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets stormed a landmark square occupied by anti-government protesters Thursday, driving out demonstrators and destroying a makeshift encampment that had become the hub for demands for sweeping political changes in the kingdom.
There was no immediate word on casualties or arrests during the pre-dawn assault on Pearl Square, which was filled with flattened tents and trampled banners.
After police regained control of the square, they continued to chase protesters through sidestreets.
The blow by authorities marked a dramatic shift in the protests.
It appeared Bahrain’s leaders sought to contain security forces after clashes Monday that left at least two people dead and brought sharp criticism from Western allies, including the U.S.
Police had held back Wednesday as tens of thousands of protesters crowded into the seaside square, dominated by a 300-foot (90-feet) monument to Bahrain’s history as a pearl diving centre.
The Egypt-inspired protests began Monday as a cry for the country’s Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip, including hand-picking most top government posts, and open more opportunities for the country’s majority Shiites, who have long complained of being blocked from decision-making roles or key posts in the military.
But the uprising’s demands have steadily grown bolder.
Many protesters are calling for the government to provide more jobs and better housing, free all political detainees and abolish a system that offers Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis from around the Middle East as a way to close the population gap with Shiites, who account for 70 per cent of the population.
Many of the newly minted nationals get jobs in security forces to further cement the number of presumed loyalists protecting the ruling system.
Increasingly, protesters are also chanting slogans to wipe away the entire ruling dynasty that has led Bahrain for more than 200 years and is firmly backed by the Sunni sheiks and monarchs across the Gulf.
Although Bahrain is sandwiched between two of OPEC’s heavyweights, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it has limited oil resources and depends heavily on its role as a regional financial hub and playground for Saudis, who can drive over a causeway to enjoy Bahrain’s Western-style bars, hotels and beaches.
Social networking websites also were abuzz with calls to press ahead with the protests. They were matched by insults from presumed government backers calling the demonstrators traitors and agents of Shiite powerhouse Iran. Some pointed out that Iranian hard-liners have called Bahrain the Islamic Republic’s “14th province” because of its Shiite links.