MANAMA, Bahrain — Thousands of Shiite protesters in Bahrain formed a human chain around the capital on Saturday as their campaign to loosen the Sunni monarchy's grip on power in the strategic Persian Gulf nation enters its third week.
Tensions have been high in Bahrain, the host of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, since a street battle between Sunnis and Shiites on Thursday left at least a dozen people injured.
No police were in sight as protesters — men and women — held hands to encircle Manama, where Bahrain's Shiite majority has been leading daily demonstrations to end what they say are discriminatory policies and political persecution.
Seven protesters have been killed since Bahrain's Shiites took their grievances to the streets, rattling one of the wealthiest corners of the Middle East, where it was long assumed that oil riches would stave off the kind of unrest that has roiled Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.
Bahrain's sectarian division, however, left it vulnerable.
The island's security forces have been on high alert after Thursday's clash between Sunnis and the majority Shiites leading antigovernment protests, centered at Manama's Pearl Square.
The Interior Ministry said all demonstrations were banned because they contradict Islamic laws and society's values, and that its security forces would act against anyone taking part in them. The ministry's statement came a day after about 100 members of the Shiite minority staged a protest in an eastern region of the kingdom. To head off protests that have swept the Arab world, the government last week announced an unprecedented economic package worth an estimated $36 billion that will give Saudis interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance and debt forgiveness.
Tunisia's Interior Ministry said that more than 2,300 escaped inmates, thieves and other troublemakers have been rounded up by security forces since Feb. 1. More than 9,000 prisoners fled prisons in the unrest that followed the end of the regime of autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled the country Jan. 14. A ministry statement Saturday, carried by the TAP news agency, didn't say how many of the 2,342 people arrested were escaped inmates. The caretaker government wants to re-establish security before elections for a constituent assembly July 24.
Algerian pro-democracy protesters' fifth bid in six weeks to march in the capital was again put down by police. Unlike pro-democracy movements in neighboring Tunisia and Libya, Algeria's protest movements have yet to get off the ground. Police put down three separate march bids in the capital that also drew demonstrators who turned out in favor of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.