DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Thousands of protesters poured into a main square in Bahrain's capital yesterday in an Egypt-style rebellion that sharply escalated pressure on authorities as the Arab push for change gripped the Gulf for the first time.
Security forces have battled demonstrators calling for political reforms and greater freedoms over two days, leading to the deaths of two protesters and to the main opposition group vowing to freeze its work in parliament in protest.
In a clear sign of concern over the widening crisis, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa made a rare national TV address, offering condolences for the deaths, pledging an investigation into the killings and promising to push ahead with reforms, which include loosening controls on the media and Internet.
"We extend our condolences to the parents of the dear sons who died yesterday and today. We pray that they are inspired by the Almighty's patience, solace and tranquillity," said the king, who had previously called for an emergency Arab summit to discuss the growing unrest.
As the crowds surged into the Pearl Square in the capital of Manama, security forces appeared to hold back. But key highways were blocked in an apparent attempt to choke off access to the vast traffic circle - which protesters quickly renamed "Nation's Square" and erected banners such as "Peaceful" that were prominent in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Opposition groups aren't calling for the ruling Sunni monarchy to be ousted, but they do want an end to its grip on key decisions and government posts. Other demands - listed on a poster erected in the square - included the release of all political prisoners, more jobs and housing, an elected cabinet and the replacement of the longtime prime minister, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.