MANAMA, Bahrain — Hundreds of riot police officers surrounded the nation's symbolic center, Pearl Square, early this morning, raining tear gas and percussion grenades on thousands of demonstrators who had crowded into the square all day Wednesday to challenge the country's absolute monarchy.
The protesters, including women and children, had been camping out and the atmosphere had been festive only hours before. Main opposition group Al Wefaq said at least two people were killed.
Witnesses, some vomiting from the gas, said they had no warning the police were going to crack down on their peaceful protest before rows of police vehicles with blue flashing lights began to circle the area.
Shiite opposition leaders had spent Wednesday issuing assurances that they were not being influenced by Iran and were not interested in turning the monarchy into a religious theocracy.
But that did not stop what appeared to be government attempts to deter the demonstrators who had laid claim to the square. Hours before the police action, the Internet was jammed to a crawl and cell phone service was intermittent. Those efforts, however, only seemed to energize the roaring crowds, which spilled out of the square, tied up roads for as far as the eye could see and united in a celebration of empowerment unparalleled for Bahrain's Shiites, who make up about 70 percent of the country's 600,000 citizens.
Riot police clashed with protesters in Benghazi, the second-largest city, and with marchers setting fire to security headquarters and police stations in two others. Moammar Gadhafi's government sought to allay further unrest by proposing the doubling of government employees' salaries and releasing 110 suspected Islamic militants who oppose him. Activists using Facebook and Twitter have called for nationwide demonstrations today to demand the ouster of Gadhafi, the establishment of a constitution and comprehensive political and economic reforms.
Embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh flooded the capital, Sana, with security forces to try to stamp out demonstrations that began nearly a week ago. They turned deadly in the southern port of Aden, with two people killed in clashes with police. A call spread via Facebook and Twitter urged Yemenis to join a series of "One Million People" rallies on Friday.
Opposition parties in the Horn of Africa nation that hosts the only U.S. military base on the continent, plan to demand the resignation of President Ismail Guelleh in a protest scheduled for Friday. At least 1,000 people are expected to attend the "peaceful" demonstration that may continue through the weekend, Ismail Guedi Hared, president of the Union for a Democratic Alternative, said.
Egyptians defied the second warning in three days from the ruling Armed Forces Supreme Council to halt all labor unrest. The caretaker government also gave its first estimate of the death toll in the 18-day democracy uprising. Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid said at least 365 civilians died according to a preliminary count that does not include police or prisoners.
About 2,000 demonstrators attacked government offices in a southern province, ripping up pavement stones to hurl at a regional council headquarters in a protest over shoddy public services. The top medical official in Wasit province, Diaa al-Aboudi, said 55 people were injured — including three critically — in the city of Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. He said some were shot by police while others were hit by stones or suffered burns.
Information from the Associated Press and Bloomberg News was used in this report.