MANAMA, Bahrain – Bahraini troops fired into crowds of anti-government protesters in the capital of Manama Friday, reportedly killing at least four people at Pearl Square.
At least 50 people were wounded in the shooting, and seven are in critical condition, a health ministry official said.
This latest violence comes as thousands of funeral mourners called for the downfall of Bahrain's ruling monarchy as burials began Friday after a deadly assault on pro-reform protesters that has brought army tanks into the streets of the most strategic Western ally in the Gulf.
The cries against Bahrain's king and his inner circle reflect an escalation of the demands from a political uprising that began by only asking for a weakening of the Sunni monarchy's hold on top government posts and addressing discrimination by the Shiite majority in the tiny island nation.
The mood, however, appears to have turned toward defiance of the entire ruling system after the brutal attack Thursday on a protest encampment in Bahrain's capital Manama, which left at least five dead, more than 230 injured and put the nation under emergency-style footing with military forces in key areas and checkpoints on main roadways.
"The regime has broken something inside of me ... All of these people gathered today have had something broken in them," said Ahmed Makki Abu Taki, whose 27-year-old brother Mahmoud was killed in the pre-dawn sweep through the protest camp in Manama's Pearl Square. "We used to demand for the prime minister to step down, but now our demand is for the ruling family to get out."
Outside a village mosque, several thousands mourners gathered to bury three men killed in the crackdown. The first body, covered in black velvet, was passed hand to hand toward a grave as it was being dug.
Amid the Shiite funeral rites, many chanted for the removal of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and the entire Sunni dynasty that has ruled for more than two centuries in Bahrain, the first nation in the Gulf to feel the pressure for changes sweeping the Arab world.
There were no security forces near the mosque on the island of Sitra, where three of those killed had lived.
The White House has expressed "strong displeasure" about the rising tensions in Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet and the centerpiece of the Pentagon's efforts to confront growing Iranian military ambitions in the region.
The capital and other areas remained under the close watch of the military and police — which includes various nationalities from around the region under a policy by Bahrain's ruling system to give citizenship and jobs to other Sunnis to try to offset the Shiites, who account for about 70 percent of the population.
Soldiers guarded the capital's main areas and placed roadblocks and barbs wire around Pearl Square and other potential gathering sites. Work crews were busy trying to cover up the protest graffiti.
On Thursday, Bahrain's leaders banned public gatherings in an attempt to keep the protest movement from re-igniting. But the underlying tensions in Bahrain run even deeper than the rebellions for democracy that began two months ago in Tunisia and later swept away Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and is challenging old-guard regimes in Libya and Yemen.
In the government's first public comment on the crackdown, Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa said Thursday it was necessary because the demonstrators were "polarizing the country" and pushing it to the "brink of the sectarian abyss."
Speaking to reporters after an emergency meeting with his Gulf counterparts in Manama to discuss the unrest, he called the violence "regrettable," said the deaths would be investigated and added that authorities chose to clear the square by force at 3 a.m. — when the fewest number of people would be in the square — "to minimize any possibility of casualties."
Many of the protesters were sleeping and said they received little warning of the assault. More than 230 people were injured, some seriously.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Washington must expand efforts for political and economic reforms in places such as Bahrain. "There is an urgency to this," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Elsewhere, the European Union and Human Rights Watch urged Bahraini authorities to order security forces to stop attacks on peaceful protesters.
The protesters had called for the monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions and address deep grievances by Shiites, who claim they face systematic discrimination and poverty and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.
Shiites have clashed with police before in protests over their complaints. But the growing numbers of Sunnis joining the latest protests have come as a surprise to authorities, said Simon Henderson, a Gulf specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"The Sunnis seem to increasingly dislike what is a very paternalistic government," he said, adding that the crackdown was "symptomatic" of Gulf nations' response to crises. "As far as the Gulf rulers are concerned, there's only one proper way with this and that is: be tough and be tough early."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.