Helicopters flew overhead and Bahraini police fired teargas as they cleared protesters from a central roundabout that had become the symbol of an uprising by the island’s Shi’ite Muslim majority.
Advancing less than 24 hours after Bahrain declared martial law, police moved in thick lines from Bahrain Financial Harbour, the country’s main financial district, to the Pearl roundabout.
Helicopters buzzed overhead as youths hurled petrol bombs at police and scattered when new rounds of teargas hit, Reuters reports.
Two policemen were killed, a health official said, by protesters who knocked them down as they fled in their cars. There were no immediate reports of other injuries on Wednesday and the roundabout was mostly cleared within two hours.
Riot police blocked access to Manama’s Salmaniya hospital, where many civilian casualties had previously been treated, and it was difficult to pin down casualty figures.
The security operation came a day after Bahrain declared three months of martial law to help quell unrest that has drawn in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbour Saudi Arabia.
It did not appear that Gulf Arab forces invited in by the government for support were involved in the operation.
Thousands of protesters had been camped out at the Pearl roundabout, near the financial district, during weeks of protests. On Sunday, they overwhelmed police and blocked a main thoroughfare leading to the financial area, crippling the economy and shaking the world’s top oil-exporting region.
Metal barricades and piles of rocks have blocked the main road since and most shops in Bahrain have been shut.
The United States, a close ally of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, has called for restraint in the island kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. It sent U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman to Bahrain to push for talks to resolve the crisis.
Over 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi’ites who complain of discrimination at the hands of the Sunni royal family. Calls for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed the Sunni minority, which fears that unrest could serve non-Arab Shi’ite power Iran.
Bahrain has been gripped by its worst unrest since the 1990s after protesters took to the streets last month, inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia.
Unlike those countries, where the mainly Sunni populations united against the regime, Bahrain is split along sectarian lines, raising the risk of a slide into civil conflict.
Violent clashes between youths wielding clubs, knives and rocks have become daily occurrences, forcing Bahrain University and many schools to close in order to avoid further trouble.
The United Nations and Britain have echoed the U.S. call for restraint and the Group of Eight powers expressed concern, though analysts said the escalation showed the limits of U.S. influence when security was threatened.
Three people, including one policeman, were killed, and more than 200 were wounded in various clashes on Tuesday.
The British embassy upgraded the travel warning on its website on Tuesday as the security situation deteriorated.
“We recommend that those without a pressing reason to remain should be ready to leave at short notice,” it said.
The unrest prompted Bahraini officials to issue stark warnings on Tuesday that martial law could mean imposing a curfew, evacuating areas and dispersing gatherings.
“In order for the situation to return to normal we have to establish order and security and … stop the violations which have spread disturbances among the people of our dear country,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashed al-Khalifa said.
As protesters fled, Bahraini security forces in light armoured personnel carriers began to clear the makeshift roadblocks. Refuse disposal trucks moved in to remove the debris and tents, some of which protesters set on fire as they left. Police opened cars that were left behind by fleeing protesters.
As demonstrators fled to nearby suburbs, black smoke was rising from the Shi’ite area of Sanabis but the source of the smoke was unclear. Small blasts occasionally reverberated through the capital Manama, but the source was also unclear.
Even in further flung areas of Manama, residents said they could hear clashes and police had cut off three bridges linking Bahrain’s airport, on Muharraq island, to the main island.
“There are shots near and far. It’s not only shooting in the air, it’s urban warfare,” said a resident who lives near the Budaya Highway in the northwest of Bahrain.
Calls of “God is Great” could be heard echoing from Shi’ite mosques across Manama and the beating of drums could be heard.
Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights said police had fired live rounds. Reuters could not immediately verify those reports.
Human Rights Watch urged Bahrain to exercise restraint.
“King Hamad’s decree does not give the authorities a blank check to commit abuses,” said Joe Stork of HRW.