MANAMA, Bahrain — Bahrain's leaders banned public gatherings and sent tanks into the streets Thursday, intensifying a crackdown that killed five antigovernment protesters, wounded more than 200 and turned a hospital into a cauldron of anguish and rage against the monarchy.
After allowing several days of rallies in the capital of Manama by disaffected Shiites, the island nation's Sunni rulers unleashed riot police who stormed a protest encampment in Pearl Square before dawn, firing tear gas, beating demonstrators or blasting them with shotgun sprays of birdshot. Along with two who died in clashes with police Monday, the new killings brought the death toll this week in Bahrain to seven.
The willingness to resort to violence against largely peaceful demonstrators was a sign of how deeply the monarchy fears the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests. In the government's first public comment on the crackdown, Foreign Minister Khalid al Khalifa said it was necessary because the demonstrators were "polarizing the country" and pushing it to the "brink of the sectarian abyss."
He called the violence "regrettable," said the deaths would be investigated and added that authorities chose to clear the square by force at 3 a.m. — when the fewest number of people would be in the square — "to minimize any possibility of casualties."
Many of the protesters were sleeping and said they received little warning of the assault.
In the wake of the bloodshed, angry demonstrators who milled around one hospital for treatment or to transport wounded friends and relatives chanted: "The regime must go!"
They stomped on and burned pictures of King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa outside the emergency ward at Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main hospital where most of the casualties were taken.
"We are even angrier now," shouted Makki Abu Taki, after viewing the birdshot-riddled body of his son in the hospital morgue. "They think they can clamp down on us, but they have made us angrier. We will take to the streets in larger numbers and honor our martyrs. The time for al Khalifa has ended."
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Manama was effectively shut down Thursday. For the first time in the crisis, tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled into the streets and military checkpoints were set up. The Interior Ministry warned Bahrainis in mobile phone text messages to stay off the streets. Banks and other key institutions did not open, and workers stayed home, unable or too afraid to pass through checkpoints to get to their jobs.
Bahrain's Parliament — minus opposition lawmakers who are staging a boycott — met in emergency session. One pro-government member, Jamila Salman, broke into tears. A leader of the Shiite opposition Abdul-Jalil Khalil said 18 lawmakers resigned to protest the killings.
Hours after the square was cleared, the military announced a ban on gatherings and said on state TV that it had "key parts" of the capital under its control.
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The burst of deadly violence against the demonstrators has left the Obama administration again confronting the awkward task of trying to stabilize an essential allied government besieged by growing opposition from its citizens.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, and the fall of its government could scramble the strategic order in the Middle East, potentially weakening U.S. leverage and leaving Iran in a stronger position.
In an acknowledgement of the kingdom's crucial role, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other officials rushed to reach out Thursday to Bahraini officials, urging them to halt the violence and to quickly adopt political reforms that could satisfy the protesters.
The 5th Fleet headquarters controls U.S. naval ships and aircraft operating in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The fleet's broad mission is to protect the flow of oil and, in case of a military crisis with Iran, to keep open the Strait of Hormuz, the 29-mile choke point near the entrance to the Persian Gulf. More than 20 percent of the world's petroleum shipments travel through the strait.
The administration carefully crafted its outreach to Bahrain's leadership, deploring the violence, but stopping short of condemning the government.
Clinton, in a call to the foreign minister, voiced "deep concerns" about the crackdown on Thursday and warned against more violence today, when there would be "funerals and prayers."
Information from McClatchy-Tribune Information Services was used in this report.