Manama, Feb 22 : Protesters on Monday escalated calls for an end to the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty in Bahrain as political turmoil sweeping the Gulf kingdom forced the cancellation of the season-opening F1 Grand Prix race. The mainly-Shiite protesters have called a massive demonstration for Tuesday and expect tens of thousands of people to converge on Pearl Square. Those already there have vowed not to leave until their demands are met. And a top exiled opposition figure said he planned to return to Bahrain, fuelling pressure on the ruling royal family for reform.
"We will stay here for as long as it takes and ...will continue to offer food to all those here in the square," said Qassem Hassan, a university student who was passing out fruit and water to protesters. "We are determined to see our demands met." As protests raged, the kingdom announced in a statement that it would no longer
host the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix on March 13.
The heir to Bahrain's throne, Crown Prince Salman, said: "At the present time the country's entire attention is focused on building a new national dialogue for Bahrain." The crown prince has been tasked by his father, King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, with launching a wide-reaching dialogue with the opposition. But emboldened by Arab uprisings which have toppled the strongmen of Tunisia and Egypt since last month, the opposition has raised the stakes, demanding a "real constitutional monarchy" and the government's resignation.
Protesters gathering in Pearl Square appeared unimpressed by the crown prince's calls for dialogue, calling instead for him to leave. "Go away Salman, we don't want you either," read a banner carried by a young protester. Pearl Square has been the focal point of demonstrations that have since February 14 rocked Bahrain, prompting foreign governments to issue travel warnings. Last Thursday, police very early in the morning as protesters lay sleeping stormed the square, killing four people and injured scores. A Friday to return to the square was met with more gunfire and a Shiite demonstrator shot during the crackdown on Monday died of his wounds, an opposition official said. His death brings to seven the number of demonstrators killed since anti-regime protests began on February 14, according to an AFP tally based on relatives of victims and opposition officials.
Protesters have been flocking back to the square since Saturday when the army was ordered back to base. Shouts of "Sit-in, sit-in, until the regime falls" broke out among hundreds of student protesters today morning at Pearl Square. Labourers and students have joined the protests to demand a better quality of life in the kingdom, where oil reserves are dwindling. Seated on the grass in Pearl Square -- renamed "Freedom Square" and "Martyrs' Square" by protesters -- one woman said the shock of Thursday's killings has not yet subsided in the normally sleepy kingdom. "What happened on Thursday shocked us and broke our hearts," said Um Alawi, clad in full niqab and flanked by her daughters. "No mother can keep her children from coming here,"she told AFP. "Sacrifice is today the duty of all Bahrainis."
"Hamad does not deserve to be our king as he does not defend his people," added Um Salman, who had just spent her second night in the square with a group of other Bahraini mothers. "We will stay here, in the square, come what may." Their feelings were echoed by hundreds of women who have turned out to demand the resignation of the government. "King Hamad is a war criminal," said Sharifa, a young woman in black hijab, referring to the military attack on protesters Thursday."We no longer want
the rule of the Khalifa monarchy." Hassan Mashaima, exiled leader of Bahrain's opposition Haq movement, meanwhile told AFP he would return to Manama on Tuesday but said he had "no guarantees" he would not be arrested on arrival. "I have decided to return to my country," said Mashaima, a Shiite based in London who faces charges of terrorism along with 25 others in his native Bahrain. Standard and Poor's said today it was downgrading Bahrain's credit rating by one notch and could lower it further given the high level of political risk in the wake of the anti-government protests. (AFP)