Bahrain's Sunni rulers and opposition leaders have begun a national dialogue on the reform demands made by the kingdom's majority Shi'ites.
The state-run Bahrain News Agency says the talks, which got under way on Tuesday, represent a "crucial stage" in the path to democracy, and include representatives of political associations, labor unions, non-governmental organizations and the government.
The sessions are taking place in the wake of a series of protests in which some demonstrators called for the monarchy's ouster while others urged the ruling family to grant Shi'ites a greater role in government.
Bahraini officials say there are about 60 participants in each of four sessions focusing on political, economic, social and rights issues.
The island nation's Sunni rulers and opposition leaders launched the national dialogue on Saturday with a largely ceremonial session.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Tuesday welcomed the talks and urged Bahraini authorities to "take further steps" to observe international human rights obligations.
Analysts say neighboring Saudi Arabia will have significant influence on how far Bahrain's Sunni rulers are willing to go in granting concessions to the country's Shi'ite majority, who comprise about 70 percent of the kingdom's population.
Bahrain says 24 people were killed during a wave of opposition protests in February and March. Security forces cracked down on the protest movement with the help of troops from neighboring Gulf states.
Bahrain's king announced last week that an independent commission would be formed to investigate possible rights violations during recent demonstrations.
Some information for this report was provided by AP and Reuters..