Manama - Authorities in Bahrain on Friday stepped up
security around the Formula One circuit after clashes between
protesters and security forces intensified ahead of the controversial
Grand Prix race in the Gulf Kingdom.
Last year, a wave of
anti-government protests by the island's Shi'ite majority and a violent
crackdown by the Sunni rulers prompted organisers to cancel the 2011
At least 50 people have been killed since the start
of Bahrain's uprising, inspired by other Arab Spring revolts, and
violence continues to roil the island.
The 2012 grand prix race -
Bahrain's premier international event - will take place despite appeals
by rights groups for another cancellation and pressure from protesters,
including a jailed activist on a more than a two-month-long hunger
There have also been allegations of widespread human
rights abuses in the tiny, but strategic island that is the home of the
US Navy's 5th Fleet.
Additional security troops were deployed
this week around the Bahrain International Circuit and across the
capital, Manama. Supporters of the Shi'ite opposition plan to rally
later on Friday against the F1 race, which is backed by the ruling Sunni
for about 70% of Bahrain's population of just over half a million
people, but claim they face widespread discrimination and lack
opportunities that the Sunni minority has.
The country's leaders
have offered some reforms, but the opposition says they fall short of
Shi'ite demands for a greater voice in the country's affairs and an
Clashes between protesters and security
forces have taken place almost every day for months. The unrest has
intensified in the lead-up to the F1 race, including riot police firing
tear gas and stun grenades at groups of opposition supporters rallying
in the predominantly Shi'ite villages that ring Manama.
leaders from Bahrain's largest Shi'ite bloc, Al-Wefaq, said at least 50
people have been injured in the past two days when security forces
fired pellets to disperse protesters on several occasions.
Authorities vowed zero tolerance for protests as they tried to present a sense of stability ahead of the F1 weekend.
rulers have also billed the race - expected to draw a worldwide TV
audience of about 100 million in 187 countries - as an event that will
put the divided society on the path of reconciliation.
On the track, teams will be practicing on Friday and Saturday. The race is scheduled for Sunday.
of the protesters' anger has been directed at Crown Prince Salman bin
Hamad Al Khalifa, who owns the rights to the Bahrain GP. He is also the
commander of the kingdom's armed forces, which the opposition supporters
say have been enforcing the crackdown.
Last year, Salman was
tasked to lead a national dialogue aimed at reconciliation between
Shi'ite and Sunnis. The talks broke down without any compromise and have
not yet resumed.
Bahrain's most senior Shi'ite cleric, Sheik Isa
Qassim, condemned the Sunni rulers for staging the F1 race despite
opposition protests. In a strongly worded sermon during Friday prayers,
the cleric said the rulers cracked down on dissent aggressively "as if
we are entering a war".
In Iraq, hard-line Shi'ite cleric Muqtada
al-Sadr, denounced Bahrain for staging the grand prix while "blood is
being shed" on the island. Al-Sadr also condemned the F1 teams for
racing, saying their presence in Bahrain gives "support for injustices
and the killings".
As a majority Shi'ite country, Iraq has backed Bahrain's Shi'ite-led protests.