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TURMOIL IN THE ARAB WORLD

Release of prisoners in Bahrain meets key opposition demand

Cleric Sheikh Mohammed Habib Muqdad, one of the political prisoners released by the king of Bahrain, shook hands with supporters at Pearl Square in Manama yesterday. Cleric Sheikh Mohammed Habib Muqdad, one of the political prisoners released by the king of Bahrain, shook hands with supporters at Pearl Square in Manama yesterday. (Caren Firouz/ Reuters)
Associated Press / February 24, 2011

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MANAMA, Bahrain — Thousands of antigovernment protesters marched to Manama’s Pearl Square yesterday after Bahrain’s king released at least 100 political prisoners, an acknowledgment by the Sunni ruler of the mounting pressure being placed on him by the Shi’ite opposition.

The inmates included 25 Shi’ite activists on trial since last year for plotting against the state. The release underlined how much the absolute rulers of the Gulf kingdom, a close ally of Washington, want to begin reform talks with protest leaders. Their release was one of the major demands of the emboldened political movement seeking constitutional reform.

Bahrain’s authorities said in an e-mail that 308 prisoners were released from custody yesterday. However, the president of Bahrain’s Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, said only about 100 of those people were political prisoners, while at least 300 remain in detention.

Elsewhere yesterday:

Saudi Arabia
As Saudi Arabia’s 86-year-old monarch returned home from back surgery, his government tried to get ahead of potential unrest in the oil-rich country by announcing an unprecedented economic package that will provide Saudis with interest-free home loans, unemployment assistance, and sweeping debt forgiveness.

The total cost was estimated at $36 billion, but this was not largesse. Saudi Arabia clearly wants no part of the revolts and bloodshed sweeping the Arab world.

Saudi officials are “pumping in huge amounts of money into areas where it will have an obvious trickle-down by addressing issues like housing shortages,’’ said John Sfakianakis, chief economist for Banque Saudi Fransi in Riyadh. “It has, really, a social welfare purpose to it.’’

The most prominent step was the injection of $10.7 billion into a fund for home loans. The move could reduce an 18-year waiting list for Saudis to qualify for a loan, Sfakianakis said.

China
Officials in China rounded up Internet users who had reposted a call for protests and charged them with subversion as the authoritarian government continued its campaign to crush any Middle East-style democracy movement, activists said.

Though only a handful of people responded to the call to demonstrate in 13 cities across China this past weekend and were met by a show of force from authorities, the unidentified organizers issued a renewed appeal to gather peacefully in parks or near monuments on Sundays.

Twitter and Facebook, instrumental in Egypt’s protests, are blocked in China. Tech-savvy Chinese can circumvent controls, but few of the country’s Internet users seek subversive content.

Yemen
The president of Yemen said he had ordered his security services to protect protesters, stop all clashes, and prevent direct confrontation between government supporters and opponents.

The directive came at the end of the day when security forces in the southern port of Aden used tear gas and fired bullets in the air to disperse hundreds of protesters.

In the capital, Sana, government supporters wielding clubs attacked demonstrators.

Amnesty International said two people were killed in Sana, the first fatalities there since unrest began about two weeks ago.

Yemen, an impoverished country with a weak central government and an active branch of Al Qaeda, has been swept up in the protests inspired by successful uprising in Egypt and Tunisia.

The demonstrators are demanding that US-backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for 32 years, step down.

Saleh has said he will step down, but not until after national elections in 2013.

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