Protesters have blocked roads and skirmished with police in Bahrain activists said, as the Gulf state staged a Formula One race promoted by the government as pure sport but seen by the opposition as a public relations stunt.
Scores of police cars and a couple of armoured vehicles stood along the highway from the capital Manama to the race circuit, where the Grand Prix, won yesterday by F1 world champion Sebastian Vettel, took place without incident.
Witnesses at the Sakhir desert circuit, roughly 20 miles south-west of the capital, said there was no sign of unrest in the immediate vicinity. Asked for comment on the reported clashes, which included more of the near-nightly violence between police and youths in villages near the capital, an interior ministry official said only that everything was normal.
Protests in the Gulf Arab country – a key Western ally that hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet – broke out in 2011, with the Shiite-led opposition drawing thousands of demonstrators demanding democratic reforms from the Sunni-led government.
The unrest forced the cancellation of that year’s F1 race and although the event went ahead in 2012, it was overshadowed by violent protests in the country.
Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said some protesters had blocked several roads around Manama yesterday morning and police fired tear gas at a secondary school in the city where students had been demonstrating.
Police cars patrolled the graffiti-adorned village of Diraz, where clashes have taken place in the last few days.
In Saar village, riot police with tear gas guns and white helmets riding in all-terrain vehicles cleared a road that had been blocked with palm tree trunks.
Nearby streets were blocked with breeze blocks, a rubbish bin and sticks. People stood in doors of shops, swept the streets, rode bicycles and walked dogs nearby.
Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa, who attended the race, dismissed the suggestion the government was using the race to paper over human rights abuses. Speaking on Saturday, he said more than 15,000 people visited the circuit on Friday and more were expected on Sunday.
“What I would like to say is let’s focus on what’s positive, let’s build upon the platform that we have, and let’s celebrate this event with Bahrainis who are really passionate,” he said at the circuit.
Crown Prince Salman is a driving force behind talks between the government and main opposition groups aimed at breaking the political deadlock. He described the race as an opportunity to transcend national differences.
On Saturday, protests broke out in about 20 villages, human rights activists said, with protesters throwing rocks at police and security forces responding with tear gas in many cases.
Mr Muhafda said he documented six shotgun injuries during clashes in the village of Jidhafs, and two cases of protesters beaten by police in the Sanabis area west of Manama on Saturday.
He said protests also broke out in other villages near the capital, where the Pearl Roundabout, a centre of the 2011 uprising, has since been razed.
At the race track, spectators enjoyed a carnival atmosphere, watching music and dance performances and other activities geared towards children. The opposition had hoped to use the race, watched around the world, to put the spotlight on its pro-democracy campaign.