Soldiers opened fire on Friday on thousands of protesters defying a government ban and streaming toward the landmark square that had been the symbolic centre of the uprising to break the political grip of the Gulf nation’s leaders.

Officials at the main Salmaniya hospital said at least 50 people were injured, some with gunshot wounds. Some doctors and medics on emergency medical teams were in tears as they tended to the wounded. X—rays showed bullets still lodged inside victims.

“This is a war,” said Dr. Bassem Deif, an orthopaedic surgeon examining people with bullet—shattered bones.

Protesters described a chaotic scene of tear gas clouds, bullets coming from many directions and people slipping in pools of blood as they sought cover. Some claimed the gunfire came from either helicopters or sniper nests, a day after riot police swept through the protest encampment in Pearl Square, killing at least five people and razing the tents and makeshift shelters that were inspired by the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

An Associated Press cameraman saw army units shooting anti—aircraft weapons, fitted on top of armoured personnel carriers, above the protesters, in apparent warning shots and attempts to drive them back from security cordons about 200 yards (200 meters) from the square.

Then the soldiers turned firearms on the crowd, one marcher said.

“People started running in all directions and bullets were flying,” said Ali al-Haji, a 27-yea--old bank clerk. “I saw people getting shot in the legs, chest, and one man was bleeding from his head.”

“My eyes were full of tear gas, there was shooting and there was a lot of panic,” said Mohammed Abdullah, a 37-year-old businessman taking part in the protest.

The clash came hours after funeral mourners and worshippers at Friday prayers called for the toppling of the Western—allied monarchy in the tiny island nation that is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, the centrepiece of the Pentagon’s efforts to confront Iranian military influence. The White House has expressed “strong displeasure” about the rising tensions in Bahrain.

Bahrain mourners call for toppling monarchy

Thousands of funeral mourners called for the downfall of Bahrain’s ruling monarchy as burials began on Friday after a deadly assault on pro—reform protesters that has brought army tanks into the streets of the most strategic Western ally in the Gulf.

The cries against Bahrain’s king and his inner circle reflect an escalation of the demands from a political uprising that began by only asking for a weakening of the Sunni monarchy’s hold on top government posts and addressing discrimination by the Shiite majority in the tiny island nation.

The mood, however, appears to have turned towards defiance of the entire ruling system after the brutal attack on Thursday on a protest encampment in Bahrain’s capital Manama, which left at least five dead, more than 230 injured and put the nation under emergency—style footing with military forces in key areas and checkpoints on main roadways.

"Ruling family must get out"

“The regime has broken something inside of me ... All of these people gathered today have had something broken in them,” said Ahmed Makki Abu Taki, whose 27—year—old brother Mahmoud was killed in the pre—dawn sweep through the protest camp in Manama’s Pearl Square. “We used to demand for the prime minister to step down, but now our demand is for the ruling family to get out.”

Outside a village mosque, several thousands mourners gathered to bury three men killed in the crackdown. The first body, covered in black velvet, was passed hand to hand towards a grave as it was being dug.

Amid the Shiite funeral rites, many chanted for the removal of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the entire Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries in Bahrain, the first nation in the Gulf to feel the pressure for changes sweeping the Arab world.

There were no security forces near the mosque on the island of Sitra, where three of those killed had lived.

U.S. expresses “strong displeasure” about rising tensions

The White House has expressed “strong displeasure” about the rising tensions in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and the centerpiece of the Pentagon’s efforts to confront growing Iranian military ambitions in the region.

The capital and other areas remained under the close watch of the military and police - which includes various nationalities from around the region under a policy by Bahrain’s ruling system to give citizenship and jobs to other Sunnis to try to offset the Shiites, who account for about 70 percent of the population.

Soldiers guarded the capital’s main areas and placed roadblocks and barbs wire around Pearl Square and other potential gathering sites. Work crews were busy trying to cover up the protest graffiti.

On Thursday, Bahrain’s leaders banned public gatherings in an attempt to keep the protest movement from re—igniting. But the underlying tensions in Bahrain run even deeper than the rebellions for democracy that began two months ago in Tunisia and later swept away Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and is challenging old—guard regimes in Libya and Yemen.

Demonstrators “polarizing the country”

In the government’s first public comment on the crackdown, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said on Thursday it was necessary because the demonstrators were “polarizing the country” and pushing it to the “brink of the sectarian abyss.”

Speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting with his Gulf counterparts in Manama to discuss the unrest, he called the violence “regrettable,” said the deaths would be investigated and added that authorities chose to clear the square by force at 3 a.m. - when the fewest number of people would be in the square - “to minimize any possibility of casualties.”

Many of the protesters were sleeping and said they received little warning of the assault. More than 230 people were injured, some seriously.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Washington must expand efforts for political and economic reforms in places such as Bahrain. “There is an urgency to this,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Stop attacks on peaceful protesters: EU, Human Rights Watch

Elsewhere, the European Union and Human Rights Watch urged Bahraini authorities to order security forces to stop attacks on peaceful protesters.

The protesters had called for the monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions and address deep grievances by Shiites, who claim they face systematic discrimination and poverty and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

Shiites have clashed with police before in protests over their complaints. But the growing numbers of Sunnis joining the latest protests have come as a surprise to authorities, said Simon Henderson, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The Sunnis seem to increasingly dislike what is a very paternalistic government,” he said, adding that the crackdown was “symptomatic” of Gulf nations’ response to crises. “As far as the Gulf rulers are concerned, there’s only one proper way with this and that is- be tough and be tough early.”

Bahrain locked down after five protesters killed

Bahrain’s leaders banned public gatherings and sent tanks into the streets on Thursday, intensifying a crackdown that killed five anti-government protesters, wounded more than 200 and turned a hospital into a cauldron of anguish and rage against the monarchy.

Bahrain’s streets were mostly empty after the bloody clampdown, but thousands defied authorities by marching in cities in Libya and Yemen as the wave of political unrest continued in the wake of uprisings that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.

The tiny kingdom of Bahrain is a key part of Washington’s military counterbalance to Iran by hosting the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.

After allowing several days of rallies in the capital of Manama, the island nation’s rulers unleashed riot police who stormed a protest encampment in Pearl Square before dawn, firing tear gas, beating demonstrators or blasting them with shotgun sprays of birdshot. Along with two who died in clashes with police on Monday, the new killings brought the death toll this week in Bahrain to seven.

The willingness to resort to violence against largely peaceful demonstrators was a sign of how deeply the monarchy fears the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests.

More anger now

In the wake of the bloodshed, angry demonstrators who milled around one hospital for treatment or to transport wounded friends and relatives chanted- “The regime must go!”

They stomped on and burned pictures of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa outside the emergency ward at Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main hospital where most of the casualties were taken.

“We are even angrier now,” shouted Makki Abu Taki, after viewing the birdshot-riddled body of his son in the hospital morgue. “They think they can clamp down on us, but they have made us angrier. We will take to the streets in larger numbers and honour our martyrs. The time for Al Khalifa has ended.”

Manama shut down

Manama was effectively shut down. For the first time in the crisis, tanks and armoured personnel carriers rolled into the streets and military checkpoints were set up. The Interior Ministry warned Bahrainis in mobile phone text messages to stay off the streets. Banks and other key institutions did not open, and workers stayed home, unable or to afraid to pass through checkpoints to get to their jobs.

Bahrain’s parliament — minus opposition lawmakers who are staging a boycott — met in emergency session. One pro-government member, Jamila Salman, broke into tears. A leader of the opposition Abdul-Jalil Khalil said 18 lawmakers resigned to protest the killings.

Hours after the square was cleared, the military announced a ban on gatherings and said on state TV that it had “key parts” of the capital under its control.

Police prevented people from getting close to the square, which features a 300—foot monument with a giant representation of a pearl atop it, a testament to the island’s pearl-diving past.

The smashed tents, broken chairs and other debris that was swept up by authorities was seen dumped in the yard of a police station.

Salmaniya hospital was thrown into chaos immediately after the police raid. A steady stream of dozens of wounded from the square were brought in by ambulances and private cars. Nurses rushed in men and women on stretchers, their heads bleeding, arms in casts, faces bruised. At the entrance, women wrapped in black robes embraced each other and wept.

The Health Ministry put the number of wounded at 231.

Many families were separated in the chaos. An Associated Press photographer saw police rounding up lost children and taking them into vehicles.

The Bahrain violence forced the cancellation of a lower-tier open-wheel race in Bahrain for Friday and Saturday, and leaves in doubt the March 13 season-opening Formula One race at the same track. Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone said he will wait until next week to decide whether to proceed with the race. He spoke Thursday to Crown Prince Sheik Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa about the situation.

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