Hassan Ammar, Associated Press
MANAMA, Bahrain — Riot police firing tear gas and wielding clubs stormed a landmark square occupied by anti-government protesters before dawn Thursday, driving out demonstrators and destroying a makeshift encampment that had become the hub for demands to bring sweeping political changes to the kingdom.
The main opposition group Al Wefaq said at least two people were killed in the assault on Pearl Square, which was littered with flattened tents, trampled banners and broken glass. There was no official word on deaths or injuries, but hospitals treated dozens of people with serious gaping wounds, broken bones and respiratory problems from the tear gas.
Hours after police retook control of the plaza, the tiny island nation was in lockdown mode. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in some areas — the first sign of military involvement in the crisis. Police checkpoints were set up along main roadways and armed patrols moved through neighborhoods in an apparent attempt to thwart any mass gatherings.
Barbed wire was put up around Pearl Square and a message from the Interior Ministry declared the protest camp "illegal." The air still carried the smell of tear gas more than four hours after the assault.
The blow by authorities marked a dramatic shift in tactics. It appeared Bahrain's leaders had sought to rein in security forces after clashes Monday that left at least two people dead and brought sharp criticism from Western allies — including the U.S. — which operates its main naval base in the Gulf from Bahrain.
Police held back Wednesday as tens of thousands of protesters crowded into the seaside square, dominated by a 300-foot (90-meter) monument to Bahrain's history as a pearl diving center.
After the crackdown early Thursday, protesters who were camped in the square overnight described police swarming in through a cloud of eye-stinging tear gas.
"They attacked our tents, beating us with batons," said Jafar Jafar, 17. "The police were lined up at the bridge overhead. They were shooting tear gas from the bridge."
Many families were separated in the chaos. An Associated Press photographer saw police rounding up lost children and taking them into vehicles.
Hussein Abbas, 22, was awakened by a missed call on his cell phone from his wife, presumably trying to warn him about reports that police were preparing to move in.
"Then all of a sudden the square was filled with tear gas clouds. Our women were screaming. ... What kind of ruler does this to his people? There were women and children with us!"
One man said he pretended to be unconscious to avoid further beatings from police.
ABC News said its correspondent, Miguel Marquez, was caught in the crowd and beaten by men with billy clubs, although he was not badly injured.
The Egypt-inspired protests began Monday as a cry for the country's Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip, including hand-picking most top government posts, and open more opportunities for the country's majority Shiites, who have long complained of being blocked from decision-making roles or key posts in the military.
But the uprising's demands have steadily grown bolder. Many protesters called for the government to provide more jobs and better housing, free all political detainees and abolish a system that offers Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis from around the Middle East as a way to close the population gap with Shiites, who account for 70 percent of the population. Many of the newly minted nationals get jobs in security forces to further cement the number of presumed loyalists protecting the ruling system.
Increasingly, protesters also chanted slogans to wipe away the entire ruling dynasty that has led Bahrain for more than 200 years and is firmly backed by the Sunni sheiks and monarchs across the Gulf.
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