MANAMA, Bahrain – Military troops and security forces opened a large-scale assault today against hundreds of anti-government protesters occupying a landmark square in Bahrain’s capital, a day after emergency rule was imposed and clashes erupted in the violence-wracked Gulf kingdom.
Police and military units fired tear gas as they pushed into Pearl Square, which has been the center of an uprising against Bahrain’s rulers since it began more than a month ago. Shooting was heard as the attack was launched shortly after daybreak, but there was no immediate word on casualties. Black smoke was seen rising from the square.
It was unclear whether the offensive included soldiers from other Gulf nations who were dispatched to help Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy, which has been under relentless pressure from the country’s majority Shiite Muslims to give up its monopoly on power.
Helicopters crisscrossed over the square, which was cleared by security forces late last month but was later retaken by protesters after a deadly confrontation with army units.
Protesters fled for cover into side streets. For Bahrain’s authorities, clearing Pearl Square would be more of a symbolic blow against protesters than a strategic victory. Opposition groups were still be able to mobilize marches and other actions against the leadership.
Bahrain’s king on Tuesday declared a three-month state of emergency and instructed the military to battle unrest in the strategic nation, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. Shortly after the announcement, clashes erupted across the island nation, killing at least two civilians. Saudi officials also said one of its soldiers was killed.
Bahrain’s sectarian clash is increasingly viewed as an extension of the region’s rivalries between the Gulf Arab leaders and Shiite powerhouse Iran.
Washington, too, is pulled deeply into Bahrain’s conflict because of its key naval base – the Pentagon’s main Gulf counterweight to Iran’s growing military ambitions.