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F1 in Bahrain draws protests

April 21, 2013

Protests have continued in Bahrain ahead of Sunday's Formula One race, with authorities describing them as largely peaceful. Some scenes turned violent, but the circuit was heavily guarded to ward off trouble.

Riot police extinguish a row of burning tires set ablaze by Bahraini anti-government protesters, not pictured, on a street in Jidhafs, Bahrain, Sunday, April 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa, regarded as a comparative moderate within the small Gulf state's royal family, sought a conciliatory tone at the country's Sakhir circuit, a relatively quiet area to the south and west of the capital, Manama.

Prince Salman, who helped broker a recent deal for talks with the moderate opposition Al-Wefaq group, said he was "optimistic" that these talks with a key Shiite-led opposition group would result in a settlement.

"We've never used this race to say that everything's fine," he said. "We recognize there are issues in the country, but they are to be solved in a political process which is well under way."

Other opposition groups in Bahrain did not accept the offers of talks.

The crown prince also said that he believed protests over the weekend "were largely peaceful - people expressing their rights to disagree."

Nevertheless, television footage showed that some of the protests had turned violent. Police used tear gas and stun grenades on protesters, some of whom used stones and petrol bombs as weapons.

One of the major disbanded protests late on Saturday had sought to march on the former site of Manama's Pearl Square. A focal point of Bahrain's quashed 2011 uprising, one of the earliest such movements in the so-called Arab Spring, the square was razed as part of government efforts to stop the demonstrations. The 2011 Formula One race was first delayed and then canceled amid the unrest, and it only returned amid considerable controversy in 2012. Bahrain first hosted an F1 race in 2004.

Ecclestone claims neutrality

Other clashes in the majority-Shiite villages surrounding Manama were reported. Sayed Yousif al-Muhadfa of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights told news agency Reuters by phone that "there were many injuries and many attacks by tear gas."

A restless Gulf monarchy for decades, the minority Sunni-ruled Bahrain is also a key strategic US ally, home to the Fifth Fleet of its Navy.

A heavy police presence protected both the Bahrain International Circuit and the major highway leading to it. Formula One's Bernie Ecclestone, still the commercial face of the sport on behalf of the paper owners who retained his services, said he thought Bahrain was "in a way really stupid" to seek to host the F1 race "because it is a platform for people to use for protesting."

Ecclestone also said that the wealthy series, which is paid substantial sums by race organizers in exchange for the chance to host the event, was politically neutral.

"We don't go anywhere to judge how a country is run," Ecclestone told reporters, answering a question from a BBC journalist. "I keep asking people, 'What human rights?' - I don't know what they are. The rights are that people who live in the country abide by the laws of the country, whatever they are."

msh/mkg (AFP, Reuters)