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Bahrain opposition leader: Hopes fade for talks

Nov. 11, 2012 - 09:54AM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 11, 2012 - 09:54AM  |  
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MANAMA, Bahrain — Envoys from the U.S. and other countries are acting as intermediaries with the Gulf nation's rulers in attempts to ease 21 months of unrest, the head of Bahrain's main opposition group said Sunday.

Even so, he said protest groups see little hope for breakthrough dialogue as crackdowns widen.

The remarks by Sheik Ali Salman, head of the top Shiite political bloc Al Wefaq, underscore the sense of a deepening crisis in strategic Bahrain after a week that included deadly bomb blasts and an expanded deployment by the paramilitary National Guard.

On Sunday, clashes erupted after the funeral of a teenage boy killed on Friday. Opposition groups claim he was hit by a car while fleeing a security clampdown, but Bahraini officials say the death resulted from a traffic accident.

More than 55 people have been killed in Bahrain's unrest since February 2011 after an Arab Spring-inspired uprising by the country's majority Shiites to weaken the influence of the Sunni monarchy and seek a greater say in the nation's affairs. The showdown also has placed Washington in an increasingly difficult policy bind.

The U.S. does not want to jeopardize its relations with the leadership in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet as the Pentagon's main counterbalance to Iran's military expansion in the Gulf. But Washington is growing uneasy with the harsh measures against Bahrain's opposition, including a ban on protest rallies imposed late last month.

Salman told The Associated Press that American envoys and others are serving as "indirect mediators through meetings with the opposition and the (government) authorities ... These communications are efforts to end the crisis."

But Salman said there are fading hopes for dialogue to resolve the crisis because of the escalating crackdowns and convictions of opposition figures, including some sentenced to life in prison.

"Things are getting worse ... After 21 months, we did not see any preparations or serious initiatives to enter into dialogue with the opposition," Salman said in an interview.

Bahrain's leaders say they are ready to talk and have already adopted some reform steps, such as giving more oversight powers to the elected parliament. Opposition leaders, including Salman, insist the concessions are not enough, demanding that the ruling dynasty give up its control of key government posts and policies.

The rising violence also has overshadowed efforts for talks.

Government authorities claim escalating attacks — including arson, firebombs and homemade explosives — forced the decision to outlaw protest gatherings and to expand patrols by the National Guard. Last Monday, two South Asian workers, an Indian and Bangladeshi, were killed in a series of blasts the government described as "domestic terrorism."

The main Shiite opposition groups issued a joint statement renouncing violence after the blasts. But Salman acknowledged that they cannot control breakaway protest factions that have confronted riot police with firebombs. Government officials also blame protesters for homemade bombs that have killed civilians and police.

"We don't agree with them, but can't stop them because they're not listening," said Salman. "This is happening because of a lack of freedom."

Salman urged for greater international efforts to "stop the bleeding in Bahrain."

"We welcome and will cooperate with any mediator: American, European, regional. It doesn't matter," he said. "We need to solve the issue in Bahrain."

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