MANAMA (AFP) – Bahrain's opposition accused the kingdom's Sunni authorities of killing three protesters in a violent raid Wednesday on a peaceful pro-democracy camp that sparked Shiite outrage across the region.
Hundreds of riot police backed by tanks and helicopters fired shotguns and tear gas canisters early morning at demonstrators in Pearl Square, clearing the symbolic heart of the uprising in the strategic Gulf kingdom.
"We now have three martyrs," Khalil Marzouk, deputy head of the Al-Wefaq movement and a member of parliament, told AFP, adding that the situation was "catastrophic" with hospitals closed off and Shiite villages surrounded.
The violence came a day after King Hamad, boosted by the arrival in the tiny island state of armed forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, declared a three-month state of emergency in a bid to quell the protests.
Police arrived in tanks and buses before moving in on the mainly Shiite Muslim demonstrators, who have been camped out in the square for a month to press for a constitutional monarchy and an end to repression.
Thick clouds of back smoke mixed with tear gas over the square as the protesters' tents were set on fire. Explosions believed to be caused by cooking gas canisters also shook the area.
As helicopters hovered overhead, troops then entered the nearby financial centre to clear it of illegal roadblocks and the handfuls of protesters still remaining after clashes there on Sunday injured more than 200 people.
Shots were heard as troops escorted a bulldozer into the Financial Harbour business complex, the centre of a regional finance hub that hosts major international banks and multinational corporations.
Clutches of demonstrators could be heard chanting "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) and some set fire to rubbish bins in the streets, but the area was largely deserted.
The protesters are demanding democratic reform from the Sunni dynasty that has ruled the strategic archipelago -- home of the US Fifth Fleet -- for more than 200 years.
Al-Wefaq movement chief Sheikh Ali Salman said the Sunni-led regime was acting like Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi and using "extreme brutality" against ordinary people.
"We reiterate the peaceful character of the uprising despite the thugs that have been deployed by the regime," he said in an interview with Al-Jazeera television.
Two members of the security forces have died after being run down by protesters in cars, the interior ministry said. It has not confirmed the deaths of any protesters.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad condemned the intervention of Saudi-led forces to prop up the Al-Khalifa royal family as "foul and doomed," as the upheaval dragged in regional rivals and the United States.
Shiite leaders in Iraq as well as the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon also expressed outrage.
Basheer al-Najafi, one of Iraq's leading Shiite authorities, in a statement from the Iraqi shrine city of Najaf accused Bahrain of targeting peaceful villages with "gunfire and mortars."
Two people were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes outside the capital overnight Tuesday, medical sources said.
Shiite villages around the city remained cut off by the security forces on Wednesday, and phone lines were down.
Seven people were killed at the start of the protests in Pearl Square last month, when pro-democracy activists took to the streets emboldened by revolts that toppled autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
The unrest has sparked unease in Saudi Arabia and has put the United States in the difficult position -- now familiar after the unrest sweeping the Arab world -- of having to stand by a regional ally while backing democratic change.
The Pentagon authorised the departure for family members and non-emergency Defense Department staff and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged "all sides ... to negotiate toward a political resolution."
But Washington has not directly criticised the intervention of Saudi Arabia or called for the Gulf forces to withdraw.
The armoured troops which poured into the kingdom from Saudi Arabia in recent days have kept a low profile in the capital and are expected to focus mainly on protecting key infrastructure.
The United Nations and the European Union have called for restraint, while Britain has closed its embassy in Manama and advised against all travel to the kingdom.