Bahrain starts reconciliation talks as Kuwait recalls forces
Bahrain on Saturday started a national reconciliation conference "without any preconditions" as Kuwait said its naval forces had ended a mission to protect the maritime borders of its troubled neighbour, dpa reported.
"The people of Bahrain are facing a historic opportunity to overcome this critical stage through a national dialogue without any preconditions," said Khalifa Al-Dhahrani, the Speaker of the Bahraini parliament, at the inaugural session of the "National Dialogue" conference in the capital Manama.
The conference, suggested by King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa after months of unrest, was expected to address the political, economic and social problems of the country's Muslim Shiite majority in the Sunni-ruled country.
At least 30 people are believed to have been killed in government crackdowns in the weeks following protests that started in the island kingdom in February.
A key opposition group said Saturday it would insist on demands "expressing popular will" during the talks, which are aimed at quelling the widening unrest.
"Al Wefaq adheres to all of its legitimate demands, which express the popular will, and will put them on the table of the national dialogue," Khalil Marzouq, a member of the Shiite group, told the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al Awsat.
The demands included the creation of an elected government and free parliamentary elections, he added.
Al Wefaq's decision to attend the conference was welcomed by the United States.
"Al Wefaq's participation adds an important voice of Bahrain's political opposition to a process that has the potential to serve as a vehicle for reform and reconciliation," the US State Department said.
Kuwait, meanwhile, said its naval forces had concluded a three-month mission to protect Bahrain's maritime borders.
"The Kuwaiti navy joined a Gulf effort with a number of boats to secure the Bahraini maritime borders as part of Gulf Cooperation Council's joint defence treaty," Ali Al-Asaker, a Kuwaiti military attache in Manama, told the official Kuwait News Agency.
He added that the Kuwaiti force's presence in Bahrain since mid-March was a "national duty toward a country that has deep-rooted ties with the State of Kuwait."
Some other Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sent troops to Bahrain in March to help quash the pro-reform protests.
On June 1, Bahrain lifted a martial law imposed in mid-March. But the arrests of suspected pro-reform protesters and their supporters continued, along with military trials.
According to officials, more than 1,000 people, mostly Shiites, were detained, while more than 2,000 people, including doctors, teachers and unionists, were sacked from their jobs for allegedly taking part in the protests.
Between 150 and 200 detainees were believed to have been released on Friday night.