MANAMA (AFP) – Thousands of jubilant Bahrainis returned on Saturday to Manama’s Pearl Square, the focal point of bloody anti-regime demonstrations, after police and troops withdrew in an apparently conciliatory move.
After the security force pull-out, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa ordered that they were to stay away.
Salman, deputy commander of the armed forces, ordered “all security forces to immediately withdraw from assembly areas,” the BNA state news agency reported.
He also asked the “crowds to leave” to start a “new phase of national action that would bring together all parties.”
The latest developments come as pressure grows on the pro-West and strategically vital Gulf kingdom to talk to the Shiite-led opposition, which demands that the government resign before talks offered by the king can begin.
Protesters erected tents in the square after removing barbed wire and pouring in from three streets. They later lit candles in memory of the dead in the uprising.
Police, who fired tear gas earlier in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent people from reaching the square, eventually followed the army’s lead and withdrew.
“I am happy we are back — I told you we would be back,” 23-year-old Ibrahim told AFP in the square from which protesters were driven in a deadly police raid on Thursday and the army moved in with threats of firm measures.
But on Saturday afternoon, the soldiers returned to their bases.
“People want the regime to fall,” chanted demonstrators, saying they wanted “peaceful” protests.
“The will of the people has prevailed in the end,” said one.
“Our old tent was destroyed by police (in the raid), so we brought a new one,” said Ibrahim, who arrived with a group of friends.
Earlier, the opposition had rejected the prince’s offer of dialogue, saying it would join talks only after troops withdrew and the cabinet quit.
The Islamic National Accord Association, which is boycotting parliament over the army’s iron-fisted response to protests sweeping the country, said 95 people were wounded on Friday, of whom three were “clinically dead.”
Six people have died since Monday, according to the opposition and relatives, while the government puts the figure at five. At least 250 more have been hurt.
“To consider dialogue, the government must resign and the army should withdraw from the streets,” said INAA parliamentary leader Abdel Jalil Khalil Ibrahim.
“What we’re seeing now is not the language of dialogue but the language of force.”
Bahrain’s main labour union called an indefinite strike from Sunday to protest at police violence and demand the right to demonstrate peacefully.
King Hamad announced on Friday that he had assigned his son to begin a dialogue.
In a television interview, Prince Salman said “our dialogue must take place in a climate of total calm,” adding that “no issue can be excluded from that dialogue.”
On Saturday he acknowledged the need for reforms.
“There are clear messages from the Bahraini people… about the need for reforms,” he told Al-Arabiya television.
Reforms in Bahrain were initiated by King Hamad with a 2001 referendum on a new constitution which paved the way for parliamentary elections in 2002, the first since parliament was scrapped in 1975.
But the opposition wants a “real constitutional monarchy.”
“We do not accept dialogue with any of the murderers,” said a large banner in Pearl Square Saturday.
Another read “Khalifa, Go!” addressing Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, the uncle of King Hamad who has been in office since 1971 and is widely despised by the Shiite-led opposition.
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said it was vital that the promised dialogue “should begin without delay.”
In a telephone call to the crown prince on Saturday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he had expressed “the UK’s deep concern about the situation and strong disapproval of the use of live ammunition against protesters.”
US President Barack Obama condemned the violence in a telephone conversation with the king and said the country’s stability “depends upon respect for the universal rights of the people of Bahrain,” according to a White House statement.
Britain is the former colonial power in Bahrain and the US Fifth Fleet is headquartered in the island state.
The army’s intervention came after a deadly police action prompted protesters, inspired by the February 11 overthrow of veteran Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, to occupy Pearl Square.
This video is from CBS News, broadcast Feb. 19, 2011.