Bahrain's foreign minister has defended a security force crackdown on anti-government demonstrators who had camped out in a main square in the capital.
In a Thursday press briefing, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Khalifa said the protest in Manama's Pearl Square was a rebellion against the government and the nation. He added that security forces asked the demonstrators to leave before they moved into the square in a pre-dawn raid on Thursday.
Western news reports quote the country's health minister as saying three people were killed and 231 wounded in the police operation to clear square. There are reports that many protesters are missing.
In a Thursday news conference, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the reports from Bahrain were "deeply troubling." He said violence should not be used on peaceful demonstrators.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials say Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the foreign minister and expressed "deep concern" about the crackdown. Also, the Pentagon says U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates phoned Bahrain's Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa Thursday to discuss the country's security situation.
Earlier this week, protesters demanding sweeping political change had set up camp in Pearl Square. On Thursday, security forces firing tear gas, percussion grenades and rubber bullets moved into the square before dawn against the mostly Shi'ite demonstrators.
Meanwhile, news reports quote Ali Salman leader of al-Wefaq, the country's leading Shi'ite opposition group, as saying opposition groups are demanding the government's resignation. Earlier Thursday, al-Wefaq lawmakers said they plan to quit parliament in protest. The group's 18 deputies in the 40-member legislature had already vowed not to return to parliament until King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa agreed to transform the nation into a constitutional democracy with an elected government.
On Wednesday, security forces stayed back as tens of thousands of Bahrainis gathered, dramatically expanding the protests. By nightfall, a massive, jubilant crowd had swelled in Pearl Square. Earlier, hundreds had joined a procession to mourn one of two demonstrators killed since Monday.
The Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain since the 18th century, is Sunni Muslim and has long had tense relations with the country's Shi'ite majority, about 70 percent of the population.
In 2001, voters overwhelmingly approved a national charter to lead the way toward democratic changes. But a year later, the king imposed a constitution by decree that Shi'ite leaders say has diluted the rights in the charter and blocked them from achieving a majority in the parliament.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and also is a regional offshore banking center.