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Violence Flares as Bahrain Revs for Formula One Race

Vladimir Rys Photography via Getty Images(JERUSALEM) -- Opposition activists in Bahrain have called for “days of rage” ahead of Sunday’s Formula One race.

As the Bahrain Grand Prix approaches, protesters calling for political reforms have taken to the streets in bigger numbers, trying to once again direct the world’s attention to their bloody uprising against the ruling monarchy.

On Wednesday, hundreds of demonstrators were met with stun grenades and tear gas. Opposition group Al Wefaq posted photos of protesters sprayed with what they said was birdshot.

The Interior Ministry said they arrested “rioters in the act of sabotage.” The ministry denied Al Wefaq’s request for a Thursday rally, tweeting that “participation in the event is illegal.”

The Formula One world has been fiercely debating whether Bahrain is safe enough to hold the race. It was cancelled last year due to the mostly Shiite uprising against the Sunni ruling family that began last January at the start of the “Arab Spring” and has since left around 50 dead.

Last weekend Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone called Bahrain “quiet and peaceful” and race organizers have insisted the country is safe for drivers and their teams.

On Wednesday night, members of the Force India team on their way back to the team’s hotel found themselves in the middle of a protest with demonstrators hurling Molotov Cocktails. No was injured, but the team was reportedly shaken and one team member has gone home.

Held since 2004, the race is a point of pride for Bahrain. The crown prince said this year’s edition “would be a success for all of Bahrain and its people.”

Amnesty International published a report last week accusing the authorities of “trying to portray the country as being on the road to reform, but we continue to receive reports of torture and use of unnecessary and excessive force against protests.”

The tiny island kingdom ruled by the Khalifa family is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and has been the headquarters of American naval operations in the Persian Gulf since 1948.

Opposition activists accuse the security forces of rounding up scores of fellow activists ahead of the race to keep the peace. Along with political reforms, protesters have been calling for the release of human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, arrested last April and now more than 70 days into a hunger strike. An anonymous Bahraini reporter told the BBC in Bahrain that if Khawaja dies, “the streets will explode.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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