Bahrain authorities launch surprise attack on protesters

February 17, 2011

By Ned Parker and Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times

Security forces in tiny but strategic Bahrain launched a brutal assault early Thursday against at least 1,000 defiant anti-government protesters, including women and children, camped out in tents in the capital’s Pearl Square.

A barrage of tear gas canisters thundered across the square about 3 a.m. as dozens of police cars, armored security vehicles and ambulances converged on a makeshift tent city in the center of Manama that was beginning to resemble a smaller version of Tahrir Square in Cairo, where Egyptian protesters this month were successful in overthrowing their president.

Most of the protesters in Pearl Square were asleep when the assault began, witnesses said, noting that no steps had been taken to guard the area against the security forces, even though two people had been killed in earlier clashes with them.

“They told us we had three days in the square,” said one man as he ran from the scene. “And then they attack us on the second day.”

As flashing blue police car lights cast an eerie strobe effect down side streets and a helicopter swooped overhead, packs of young men with bandannas covering their faces to thwart billowing clouds of gas fled the area, flashing V signs while shouting slogans and warnings.

“Get away! They’ll shoot you! They’ll shoot anyone they think is Bahraini!” some called. Security forces in Bahrain are often recruited from neighboring nations or Southeast Asia.

Other weeping escapees told of seeing women and children lying passed out from the fumes.

“I was sleeping and then I heard screaming,” said protester Alla Mutawa. “They attacked children; they used gas that choked you like you were dying.”

In the wake of the raid, hundreds of wailing relatives packed the halls and lobby of Salmaniya Medical Complex, creating pandemonium as they frantically searched for loved ones.

Medical officials said they had seen at least one older man and a younger man killed by rubber bullets. At least 50 people, including toddlers, were receiving emergency treatment for injuries. Doctors said they expected the death toll to rise.

Relatives crowded into a room where two bodies were covered by bloody sheets. One woman in a black abaya pounded the walls and herself, keening and screaming: “Our heart! Our souls! Our martyrs!”

“We were shouting: ‘Peaceful! Peaceful!’ ” in imitation of the Tahrir Square protesters, a woman in a hospital hallway said as she tearfully held a small child being treated with oxygen. “Tomorrow the king will say, ‘Sorry,’ but this was done with his permission. He is the one telling these men to do these things.”

Nurse Zainab Yousef Hassan said she was working in a clinic in the square when “they came from everywhere, so many police, and began beating doctors, everyone.”

She showed a vicious bite mark on her arm, saying she was beaten with a billy club and bitten by a police officer as she tried escape. She finally managed to grab two children who were in the clinic and ran to a mosque before making her way to the hospital to treat the injured there.

As a stream of ambulances continued to roll up and unload the wounded onto a river of gurneys, an angry crowd began to throw fists into the air and chant, “Enough, enough.” As the stream of injured continued unabated, the enraged crowd began yelling anti-government slogans.

Many of those being pulled from the ambulances had been beaten severely about the head and body, and their hands were often bound behind their backs with plastic cuffs, giving credence to claims that they had been hit while helpless.

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