DUBAI (AFP) - A Bahraini policeman died of wounds sustained in a bomb blast during protests marking the anniversary of a crushed 2011 uprising as supporters of the main Shiite opposition bloc took to the streets on Saturday.
Thousands of demonstrators were expected to join the anniversary rally called by the opposition Al-Wefaq movement to press its campaign for a constitutional monarchy in the Sunni minority-ruled Gulf kingdom.
The policeman died from wounds sustained in a "terrorist explosion" in the Shiite village of Dair late on Friday, the interior ministry said.
It was the second reported blast during three days of protests commemorating the month-long Arab Spring-inspired uprising which was bloodily suppressed by Saudi-backed troops three years ago.
Earlier, the ministry reported another explosion in the similarly-named village of Daih, which caused minor damage to a bus transporting police personnel, pictures posted on Twitter showed.
The blasts struck as protesters took to the streets in several areas of the small but strategic archipelago, which lies just across the Gulf from Iran and is home base to the US Fifth Fleet.
Shiite villages have been at the forefront of the campaign among the majority community for the ruling Khalifa family to surrender its grip on all key cabinet posts in favour of an elected government.
Witnesses said that several protesters were wounded as police fired tear gas and bird shot to disperse them on Friday. Demonstrators responded by hurling petrol bombs at security forces, the witnesses added.
Protesters had gathered in several Shiite villages in an attempt to march on the capital's Pearl Square where demonstrators camped out for a month in early 2011 before being violently dispersed by troops. "Some villages saw rioting, vandalism and the targeting of policemen. This required police to respond to these criminal acts through legal means," the interior ministry said.
A total of 26 people "suspected of rioting and vandalism" were arrested on Friday, the ministry said. The arrests followed 29 on Thursday.
In August last year, King Hamad ordered stiffer penalties for terrorism offences, including a minimum 10-year jail term for attempted bombing convictions.
Bombings that result in casualties are punishable by life imprisonment or the death penalty.
Six opposition groups led by the main Shiite opposition party Al-Wefaq, condemned all attacks on police "regardless of their perpetrators" and called for "a neutral commission of inquiry to investigate the reports of bombings."
Al-Wefaq, which has boycotted parliament since the 2011 uprising, gathered its supporters four kilometres west of Manama on Saturday afternoon for the climax of the anniversary commemorations.
It urged them to show "high levels of discipline, sophistication... and civilisation" during the rally.
Authorities tolerate Al-Wefaq's protests which are usually organised and peaceful, unlike those of youth activists who erect impromptu roadblocks and hurl stones and petrol bombs at police.