Bahraini state media say King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has ordered the release of a group of political prisoners, in a gesture to opposition activists who have staged more than a week of anti-government protests.
Bahraini media did not name the prisoners to be freed. Most political detainees are from the Shi'ite majority of the Gulf island state, which is ruled by a minority Sunni dynasty. The prisoners include 23 Shi'ite activists on trial in Bahrain for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
An exiled Shi'ite activist on trial in absentia for the same offense says he will return to Bahrain from London Tuesday, giving a boost to opposition demands for democratic reforms and the ouster of the ruling al-Khalifa family. Hassan Mashaima, a leader of the Haq movement, says he does not know if Bahraini authorities will arrest him on arrival.
Thousands of anti-government protesters slept early Tuesday in Manama's Pearl Square, the focal point of their week-long uprising inspired by similar revolts that toppled autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia in recent weeks.
The activists have occupied the square since Saturday, reviving an encampment they had created days earlier, but which Bahraini security forces destroyed last Thursday in a deadly pre-dawn raid.
In a rival rally, thousands of government supporters gathered at a Manama mosque Monday, waving Bahraini flags and pledging allegiance to the nation's Sunni rulers, while urging them to release prisoners of conscience.
Bahrain's government withdrew troops from the streets Saturday, in response to international criticism of its crackdown on the opposition. The violence has killed seven opposition activists and wounded hundreds of others in recent days.
In a blow to Bahrain's economy, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa said Sunday the government has canceled the season-opening Formula One Grand Prix due to the political unrest. The race had been scheduled for March 13. Crown Prince Salman said Bahrain's entire attention is focussed on building a new national dialogue.
King Hamad has named the crown prince to lead a dialogue with the opposition, but opposition parties and protesters have yet to accept the proposal. They are demanding the resignation of the government and democratic reforms to strip the Sunni monarchy of its powers and end what they say is long-running discrimination against majority Shi'ites.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP and Reuters.