Protests As Anger Over Bahrain F1 Race Grows
9:19pm UK, Friday April 20, 2012
Protesters have clashed with security forces in Bahrain as tens of thousands of people gathered to call for this weekend's Formula One race to be abandoned.
Masked youths hurled petrol bombs at police who had stopped them marching to the site of the Pearl roundabout, which was the gathering point for many of last year's pro-democracy protests.
"They are trying to go to Pearl Square, police are firing tear gas and sound bombs. I can see hundreds, they are still fighting," said activist Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda by telephone.
Elsewhere, the majority of protesters had gathered on a main road outside the capital waving flags and chanting slogans against the kingdom's rulers and criticising the decision to go ahead with the race.
However, Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa said cancelling it would play into the hands of "extremists".
:: Bahrain's royal family owns 40% of the McLaren F1 racing team.
:: The F1 race is Bahrain's premier international event and it has cost the kingdom an estimated £25m to stage.
:: The Grand Prix drew 100,000 visitors to the nation and generated $500m in spending when it was last held two years ago.
:: The event is expected to draw a worldwide TV audience of about 100m in 187 countries.
:: The race is 57 laps long - a total of 191 miles (308km). It is the fourth event on the F1 calendar for 2012. The last event of 2012 is in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in November.
:: The name Bahrain means "two seas". The island's capital is Manama and the population is around 800,000. Shi'ites account for about 70% of Bahrain's population.
Al Khalifa said: "For those of us trying to navigate a way out of this political problem, having the race allows us to build bridges across communities, to get people working together.
"It is an idea that is positive, not one that is divisive."
Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone said that the race actually gave protesters a platform to voice their political concerns.
He said: "I don't want to be rude at all, but I think the Prince has been a little bit silly putting the race on because he's given the protesters the incredible platform for all you guys to talk to them.
"They talk about democracy, which is freedom of speech - they say - they've had all the freedom in the world to talk to you guys."
Security was stepped up around the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) as Formula One drivers held their first practice sessions for the event.
One race team - Force India - withdrew from the afternoon runs due to "safety concerns".
The team were caught up in a petrol bomb attack on Thursday, resulting in some team members flying home.
Meanwhile, Swiss Formula 1 team Sauber said they had encountered a group of "masked men" while travelling home to their hotel in Bahrain.
"The minibus moved to the very right side of the highway and went passed the situation," a statement from the team said.
Activists have threatened to mark this weekend's showpiece - culminating in the race on Sunday - with "days of rage".
The event was cancelled last year after a wave of anti-government protests by the island's Shi'ite majority and punishing crackdowns by the Sunni rulers.
Labour leader Ed Miliband said this year's race should be pulled before Sunday and called on the Government to act.
"Given the human rights issues in Bahrain, I don't think the Grand Prix should go ahead. I do not think the Government should remain silent on this," he said.
However, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister David Cameron said it was not for the Government to intervene in the matter.
"It is not for us to dictate what sporting events happen in other countries," the spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, driver British Jenson Button refused to become embroiled in the controversy.
Asked about the situation during an interview, the McLaren driver said: "I'm not going to get into the details of it.
"You are here interviewing me as a driver and that's exactly what I am going to talk about - motor racing. The outside issues, I'm not going to talk about."
Red Bull's double world champion Sebastian Vettel said: "I haven't seen anyone throwing bombs. I don't think it's that bad. I think it's a lot of hype."
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