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9:51pm UK, Saturday April 21, 2012
Police in Bahrain have fired tear gas on protesters as they responded with petrol bombs ahead of the Gulf state’s Formula One Grand Prix.
Up to 150 protesters were reported to be facing off against 50 police in jeeps during the violence in a Shiite district outside Manama.
“Protesters were at a roundabout in Diraz and police tried to move them by firing tear gas. They started throwing petrol bombs back at them,” a witness told Reuters.
Activists posted numerous videos online of protests, which could not be independently verified, including blockading a motorway with a barricade of burning tyres.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague spoke to the Bahraini foreign minister and urged restraint and dialogue with the opposition.
Mr Hague said: “We also call for the release of prisoners sentenced by the military court and urge all sides to restrain from violence and to enter into an inclusive and constructive political dialogue to achieve long-term stability for Bahrain.”
The fresh clashes came after an anti-government protester was found dead after violence overnight ahead of Sunday’s grand prix, according to the opposition party Wefaq.
Wefaq said the body of Salah Abbas Habib, 37, was found on the roof of a building in the village of Shakhoura.
It claimed Mr Habib was part of a group who were chased and “brutally” beaten by police during the clashes, late on Friday night.
Wefaq, the leading party among Bahrain’s majority Shi’ite Muslim population, published a photograph of Habib’s body on a corrugated iron rooftop.
In a statement on Twitter, the interior ministry confirmed a body had been discovered in Shakhura, adding: “Police have begun an investigation.”
A body purported to be that of Salah Abbas Habib on a rooftop in the village of Shakhoura
Armoured vehicles have been deployed in the capital Manama where around 50,000 activists gathered on Friday as Formula One drivers began practising at the Bahrain International Circuit, 25 miles away.
Thousands more were expected to take to the streets calling for the controversial motorsport event to be cancelled.
The protesters, who are demanding greater equality, started their so-called “three days of rage” on Friday against Bahrain’s monarchy.
Salah Abbas Habib (Pic: Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights)
Petrol bombs were hurled at security officials and anti-grand prix graffiti was daubed on walls, before the protesters were dispersed with pepper spray.
Despite months of political unrest and the regime’s crackdown on demonstrators, F1 organisers have refused to call off Sunday’s race.
Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman al Khalifa said to do so would “empower extremists”.
“For those of us trying to navigate a way out of this political problem, having the race allows us to build bridges across communities, to get people working together,” he added.
“It allows us to celebrate our nation. It is an idea that is positive, not one that is divisive.”
F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone had earlier insisted it was down to the Bahrainis to cancel their grand prix.
Meanwhile, the sport came under attack from cyber anarchists Anonymous who vowed to turn the formula1.com website into “a smoking crater in cyberspace”.
The denial-of-service attack, under the title of Operation Bahrain, was launched shortly after Prince Salman’s comments.
Anonymous said it had decided on the action after watching “the incredible human rights abuses of the Bahrain regime”.
Protesters clash with police who respond by firing tear gas to disperse them
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has resisted pressure to call for the cancellation of the event, insisting it is a matter for the F1 authorities to decide.
It came after Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper added their voices to demands for the race to be scrapped.
Mr Miliband said proceeding would send out the wrong signal a time of protests over human rights abuses in the Gulf kingdom, while Ms Cooper said British drivers should not take part.
Mr Cameron said there was “a process of reform under way in Bahrain” and added: “This Government backs that reform and wants to help promote that reform.”
In 2011, the race was cancelled as international criticism grew over the bloodshed.
The Foreign Office has advised fans in the country for this year’s event to remain vigilant.
His Royal Highness Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone (left)