Bahrain Shi'ites protest as Grand Prix practice begins

DUBAI (AFP) - Thousands of Shi'ite Muslims turned out peacefully Friday to call for political reforms in Bahrain, as practice began for this year's Formula 1 Grand Prix in the Sunni-ruled Gulf kingdom.

Demonstrations have been held during the event every year since 2011 by opponents of the ruling Al-Khalifa dynasty in an attempt to highlight the reform demands.

The influential Shi'ite opposition bloc Al-Wefaq had called for a rally Friday on the main Budaya highway, four kilometres west of Manama, which links several Shi'ite villages.

Al-Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman had urged supporters to protest "peacefully... and exploit the presence of (foreign) media attending the F1... so the world could hear the voice of the opposition and its demands and the oppression we suffer from in our country".

The gathering passed off without incident, as demonstrators waved Bahrain's red and white flag and chanted their demands while avoiding direct reference to the race, which runs through the weekend.

Clashes frequently erupt on the outskirts of Manama between security forces and protesters from the Shi'ite majority demanding that the Khalifas surrender their grip on all key cabinet posts in favour of an elected government.

On Thursday, police had deployed along a main road linking Manama to the Sakhir F1 circuit in the south, as more checkpoints were set up on roads leading to Shi'ite villages.

Following Friday's demonstration, Al-Wefaq issued a statement saying the security presence would simply "reinforce the people's determination to demand more democracy".

Al-Wefaq's peaceful rallies are usually tolerated by the authorities and rarely end in violence.

Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, remains deeply divided three years after a Shi'ite-led uprising was quashed, with persistent protests sparking clashes with police, scores of Shi'ites jailed on "terror" charges and reconciliation talks deadlocked.

The International Federation for Human Rights says at least 89 people have been killed in Bahrain since the uprising broke out in February 2011.

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