MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) - Troops and tanks locked down the capital of this tiny Gulf kingdom after riot police swinging clubs and firing tear gas smashed into demonstrators, many of them sleeping, in a pre-dawn assault Thursday that uprooted their protest camp demanding political change. Medical officials said four people were killed.
Hours after the attack on Manama's main Pearl Square, the military announced a ban on gatherings, saying on state TV that it had "key parts" of the capital under its control.
Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa justified the crackdown as necessary because the demonstrators were "polarizing the country and" pushing it to the "brink of the sectarian abyss."
Speaking to reporters after meeting with his Gulf counterparts, he also said the violence was "regrettable."
After several days of holding back, the island nation's Sunni rulers unleashed a heavy crackdown, trying to stamp out the first anti-government upheaval to reach the Arab states of the Gulf since the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In the surprise assault, police tore down protesters' tents, beating men and women inside and blasting some with shotgun sprays of birdshot.
It was a sign of how deeply the Sunni monarchy - and other Arab regimes in the Gulf - fear the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests, led by members of the country's Shiite majority but also joined by growing numbers of discontented Sunnis.
Tiny Bahrain is a pillar of Washington's military framework in the region. It hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, a critical counterbalance to Iran. Bahrain's rulers and their Arab allies depict any sign of unrest among their Shiite populations as a move by neighboring Shiite-majority Iran to expand its clout in the region.
But the assault may only further enrage protesters, who before the attack had called for large rallies Friday. In the wake of the bloodshed, angry demonstrators chanted "the regime must go," and burned pictures of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa outside the emergency ward at Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main hospital.
The Obama administration expressed alarm over the violent crackdown. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Bahrain's foreign minister to register Washington's "deep concern" and urge restraint. Similar criticism came from Britain and the European Union.
Human Rights Watch called on Bahraini authorities to order security forces to stop attacks on peaceful protesters and investigate the deaths.