Bahraini police stormed a protest camp in a central Manama square early on Thursday, killing at least three people, and armoured vehicles rumbled through the capital as the government tried to quell three days of protest.
"Police are coming, they are shooting teargas at us," one demonstrator said as police began dispersing demonstrators. Another said: "I am wounded, I am bleeding. They are killing us."
Later, more than 50 armoured vehicles rolled down a highway toward Pearl Square, a road junction that demonstrators had sought to turn into a base for protests like those in Cairo's Tahrir Square which led to the fall of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.
Thousands of overwhelmingly Shi'ite protesters, emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to Bahrain's streets this week demanding more say in the Gulf Arab kingdom where a Sunni Muslim family rules over a majority Shi'ite population.
"I was there... The men were running away, but the women and kids could not run as easily, some are still inside [the square]," said Ibrahim Mattar, a lawmaker from the main Shi'ite opposition Wefaq party.
"It is confirmed two have died," he said. "More are in critical condition."
Another Wefaq MP, Sayed Hadi, said a third protester had been killed, bringing the overall death toll to five since protests flared in Bahrain this week.
"This is real terrorism," said Abdul Jalil Khalil, also from Wefaq which has walked out of parliament and was due to meet later in the day to decide a response to the events. "Whoever took the decision to attack the protest was aiming to kill."
From a distance, the square appeared nearly empty of protesters early on Thursday after police moved in. Abandoned tents, blankets and rubbish dotted the area, and the smell of teargas wafted through the air.
Helicopters clattered over the city and tow-trucks dragged away cars abandoned by protesters, their tyres squealing on the tarmac because the brakes were still on.
One protester said he had driven away two people who had been wounded by rubber bullets.
A teenager shepherded a sobbing woman into a car, saying she had been separated from her 2-year-old daughter in the chaos. At a main hospital, about 200 people gathered to mourn and protest.
Bahrain's Interior Ministry said on Twitter that security forces had "cleared Pearl roundabout" of demonstrators, and that a section of a main road was temporarily blocked.
On Wednesday the Wefaq party demanded a new constitution that would move the country toward democracy.
"We're not looking for a religious state. We're looking for a civilian democracy ... in which people are the source of power, and to do that we need a new constitution," its secretary-general Sheikh Ali Salman told a news conference.
The religious divide that separates Bahrain's ruling family from most of its subjects has led to sporadic unrest since the 1990s, and the country's stability is being closely watched as protest movements blow through North Africa and the Middle East.
Bahrain, a small oil producer, is more prone to unrest than most of the Gulf Arab region where, in an unwritten pact, rulers have traded part of their oil wealth for political submission.
Regional power Saudi Arabia, and the United States - which bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain - both view the ruling Khalifa family as a bulwark against Shi'ite Iran.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa introduced a new constitution giving Bahrainis more political rights a decade ago, but the opposition says he has not gone far enough to introduce democracy. Most of the cabinet are royal family members.
Protesters have demanded that the king fire his uncle, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been prime minister since the modern state was founded in 1971. Wefaq members say they want elections for prime minister.
Protesters' wrath had already been stirred up by the deaths of two of their number during this week's demonstrations, the second killed in clashes at the funeral of the first.
"The people demand the fall of the regime" protesters chanted outside the hospital, echoing a slogan of Egyptian demonstrators.
King Hamad has expressed condolences to relatives of the two dead men killed on Monday and Tuesday and said a committee would investigate. His government says it has detained people suspected of blame for the deaths.
Protesters who on Wednesday had expressed confidence they were secure in the square, said they had no idea the police would swoop in and forcibly break up their encampment.
"There was no single warning," one demonstrator said, declining to be named. "It was like attacking an enemy. People were sleeping peacefully."For all the latest business news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
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