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Bahrain Grand Prix held despite protests

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Anti-government protesters have held several "days of rage" in the run-up to the racing event [Reuters] Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel has won the Grand Prix in Bahrain while rage boiled beyond the track among protesters who say the ruling family that crushed Arab Spring demonstrations last year should not have hosted the race.

High security kept trouble well away from the track on Sunday, where Red Bull's Vettel had started in pole position in a race that passed without incident.

As the race came to an end, protesters called for afternoon protests in the capital Manama's Pearl roundabout, the site of last year's uprising against the ruling al-Khalifa family.

Similar protests were held outside the London offices of Formula One chief, Bernie Ecclestone, with demonstrators chanting "down, down Bernie" and "shame on you Bernie".

Protesters have also been calling for the release of detained Abdul Hadi al-Khawaja, who is on the 74th day of a hunger strike.

Khawaja's deteriorating health has raised fears that he may die in custody, but Bahrain's interior ministry said on Sunday that he was in "good health" and would meet Denmark's ambassador later in the day. Khawaja is a dual citizen of Bahrain and Denmark.

Kalil al-Marzooq, a spokesman for al-Wefaq, the country's main opposition bloc, said that Bahrainis felt the race was "not a big question".

"We have political problems. Especially the opposition itself ... [is] neutral about this event. We have people being killed. We have demands to return the power to the people rather than concentrating it on to the hands of the rulers," he said.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who was at the race, said that he wanted "to make clear my personal commitment to reform and reconciliation in our great country. The door is always open for sincere dialogue amongst all our people".

As the race got under way, security was tight in Manama, and its surrounding areas, with reports indicating that anti-government protests overnight have resulted in fresh clashes.

Police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters, who responded by throwing stones and fire bombs while chanting slogans against the monarchy, AFP news agency reported.

Protests were reported to have been held in the villages of Malkiya, Karzakan, Sadad and Damistan.

Witnesses said the Sakhir circuit, where Sunday's race took place, was under complete lockdown, though protesters were briefly able to block some roads leading to the track by setting tyres and garbage on fire.

Black smoke from burning tyres hung in the air over Budaiya on Sunday morning. The village, located outside the capital, Manama, was the scene of mass protests on Friday.

In Manama, police prevented planned protests at a central market, residents and witnesses said.

Dozens of armoured vehicles and security forces in riot gear were deployed along the road to the Bahrain International Circuit and around Manama. Activists said barbed wire was installed near some parts of the main highway.

Protester killed

The latest protests come a day after al-Wefaq, the country's main opposition bloc, said that a man had been found dead after clashes with riot police in the village of Shakhoura.

Al-Wefaq named the dead demonstrator on Saturday as Salah Abbas Habib, 37, and said his body was found on the roof of a building.

It said Habib was part of a group who were beaten by police during clashes late on Friday night.

Mohammed Eissa, Habib’s brother in law, told the Reuters news agency that police had not allowed the family to see the body when they went to the compound where it was found.

"We wanted to see it before it was taken so we can identify the body, but we were told to go the morgue and identify it there," Eissa said.

In a statement on the microblogging website Twitter, the interior ministry confirmed the death and said authorities have launched an investigation into the incident.

Wefaq's Marzooq said the government was tightly controlling information about Habib's death.

"All elements of the state are used against the people for repression," he said.

Violence had escalated in the run-up to the Grand Prix, which has come under huge criticism from country’s mainly Shia protesters, while the government wanted the race to run to send out a signal to the world of a return of normality.
 
"The government is using the Formula One race to serve their PR campaign," rights activist Nabeel Rajab said. "It's not turning out the way they wanted."

The protesters have blamed the Sunni ruling elite for shutting them out of opportunities, jobs and housing.

The rulers had depicted the race, which is expected to have draw a worldwide TV audience of about 100 million in 187 countries, as an event that will put the divided society on the path of reconciliation.


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