MANAMA, Bahrain - Security forces fired stun grenades Wednesday at anti-government protesters who swarmed into a cultural exhibition for Bahrain's Formula One race, setting off street battles and sending visitors fleeing for cover.
It was a blow to the Gulf nation's efforts to project stability, returning to the Grand Prix circuit a year after the race was cancelled because of unrest.
The demonstration was the most direct attempt by protesters to bring their demands into events linked to Sunday's race, Bahrain's top international showcase. The resumption of the top-level auto race is being touted by Bahrain's rulers as a sign they have the upper hand after 14 months of clashes and crackdowns.
Nearly 50 people have been killed since February 2011 in violence between security forces and protesters from Bahrain's Shiite majority, which seeks to break the near monopoly on power by the island nation's Sunni monarchy.
Shiites account for about 70 per cent of Bahrain's population, but claim they face widespread discrimination and are blocked from key political or military posts. The Sunni leaders have offered some reforms, but the opposition says they fall short of their demands.
"Down, down Formula One," some protesters shouted in the traditional market area in Bahrain's capital, where displays set up for the F1 race featured local handicrafts, food and other items.
The demonstrators also shouted messages of support for a jailed activist who has been on a hunger strike for more than two months. Some of the placards accused the U.S. — a close ally of Bahrain's leaders — of ignoring their struggle while backing with other reform movements in the Arab Spring.
Washington has pressed Bahrain's rulers to open dialogue with opposition groups, but has been careful not to jeopardize its vital military ties with Bahrain as home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet — one of the Pentagon's main counterweights to Iran in the Gulf.
At the exhibition, riot police fired stun grenades and pepper spray as hundreds of protesters pressed close to the stalls and shops. Visitors ran for safety, leaving shopping bags and sandals on the road. Many shopkeepers closed early — another sign that unrest might mar hopes the F1 race could help the country's hard-hit businesses.
There were no reports of injuries, but several protesters were detained.
Earlier Wednesday, dozens of people confronted Bahrain's crown prince and shouted anti-government slogans in a neighbourhood that has been an opposition stronghold during the 14-month uprising.
Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa was not injured in the outburst, but it carried powerful symbolism because he is a key backer of the Formula One race.
The crown prince was surrounded as he left a funeral of a Shiite executive who worked on one of his labour reform projects.
The ceremony was in Sanabis, the site of frequent clashes between security forces and Shiite protesters seeking to break Sunni dynasty's tight grip on power.
In London, two activists were arrested Tuesday after occupying the roof of the Bahraini Embassy and unfurling a banner bearing pictures of Al-Khawaja, a prisoner on hunger strike, and senior Shiite opposition leader Hassan Mushaima. Both are sentenced to life in prison. The protesters have been identified the protesters as Mushaima's son, Ali, and 30-year-old Moosa Satrawi.
Al-Khawaja's wife, Khadija al-Musawi, told The Associated Press that his family is concerned about what she described as her husband's declining health. She said the family will hold the government responsible for his death in custody.
In addition to refusing food for more than two months, al-Khadija said her husband is now also refusing IV drips and water.
"I am really worried about him," al-Musawi said in a phone interview Wednesday. "The government wants my husband dead."