The situation in Bahrain became more critical overnight as security forces using tanks and other military vehicles moved on the camp site set up by protesters.
The BBC reports this morning: “Hundreds of riot police using tear gas and batons moved into the square before dawn on Thursday. At least two people died in the police operation, according to the opposition, while 100 sustained injuries.”
The BBC’s Ian Pannell added that “the brutal response of the authorities makes it clear that the ruling family saw this as a threat to its grip on power.”
CNN reports: “Police were able to clear the roundabout of thousands of protesters and hours after that, convoys more than 50 military armoured personnel carriers each armed with machine guns drove into the area. Convoys included trucks carrying razor wire.”
Time magazine says: “Hours after police retook control of the plaza, the tiny island nation was in lockdown mode. Tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in some areas — the first sign of military involvement in the crisis. Police checkpoints were set up along main roadways and armed patrols moved through neighborhoods in an apparent attempt to thwart any mass gatherings.”
A leading UN official has this morning urged the authorities to show restraint.
“I urge the authorities to immediately cease the use of disproportionate force against peaceful protestors and to release all peaceful demonstrators who have been arrested,” said High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement.
“Too many peaceful protesters have recently been killed across the Middle East and North Africa. Authorities everywhere must scrupulously avoid excessive use of force, which is strictly forbidden in international law. They must conduct prompt, impartial and transparent investigations where there have been breaches of this obligation.”
The latest news has inevitably increased fears for the safety of F1 personnel. With pre-race testing starting on March 3 hundreds of F1 team members are due to be in the country for two weeks, with some arriving several days before the test.
GP2 teams are already in the country for the Asian series event, with action due to start today.
It remains to be seen whether Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA are willing to make a timely call on whether it is appropriate for the race to go ahead as planned, with the eyes of the world already on the country.
The test means that the decision will have to be made within the next week, before team personnel and the cars fly to Bahrain.
It’s clear that the Grand Prix could become a point of focus for protesters, as it is the country’s most prestigious international event and is a pet project of the ruling family. Indeed it’s possible that the government will insist on the Grand Prix going ahead at all costs in an attempt to show the world that all is well.
However, even if there is security in and around the track, just moving around the rest of the country will be a stressful undertaking for visitors. Team bosses and media organisations may now be reluctant to take responsibility for sending their employees to the country.
The safety risks aside, there is now the separate question of whether F1 should be seen to be taking a “business as usual” approach and heading to Bahrain as if nothing has happened. Sponsors may also be getting itchy feet about associating their brands with such a hot political climate.
If the race does take place, the situation is certain to have an effect on the attendance both of sponsor guests and spectators, with ex-pats and locals from elsewhere in the region normally making up a large part of the crowd.
It’s been reported that even citizens of neighbouring Saudi Arabia have already cut back on visits. Saudi businessman Ahmed Ibrahim told the Gulf Daily News: “I refuse to go to Bahrain because of the protests. I worry the situation may go out of control and it will not be good for non-Bahrainis to be present.”