Riot police in Bahrain fired tear gas and rubber bullets Sunday at an anti-government protest camp in the capital and at demonstrators blocking the highway into the main financial district, eyewitnesses said.
The Sunday morning police operation was the largest effort to clear the protesters from Pearl Square in the capital, Manama, since the Shiite demonstrations, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, started in mid-February.
Mostly Shiite protesters are demanding greater political freedoms and want the Sunni monarchy to give up its monopoly on power in the strategically important Gulf nation, the home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
On Sunday, the protesters blocked a main highway leading to Bahrain's main financial district in downtown Manama, causing huge traffic chaos during morning rush hour. Sunday is the first work day of the week in the Arab world.
Traffic was stalled for miles (kilometers), and police fired tear gas and used heavy vehicles to try to move the protesters and dismantle the barriers they had set up.
Eyewitnesses at Pearl Square said security forces also surrounded the protests' tent compound, shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at the activists.
Protesters showed an Associated Press photographer rubber bullets apparently fired Sunday. Activists tried to stand their ground and chanted "Peaceful, peaceful."
Bahrain's government said in a statement that security forces are conducting "operations to reopen the King Faisal Highway." Police dispersed about 350 protesters "by using tear gas," the government said.
The statement did not mention police activity at Pearl Square.
Four people were killed at Pearl Square last month when security forces stormed it just days after the protesters set it up. Three other people were killed at protests aimed at reclaiming the square.