MANAMA, Bahrain – Tens of thousands of red-and-white draped, flag-waving protesters flooded this tiny kingdom's capital Tuesday, a massive show of force against the embattled monarchy as the king made another concession to the marchers — a promise to release an unspecified number of political prisoners.
Upbeat, determined demonstrators took over Manama for the day, circling the Bahrain Mall and Manama's financial district, symbols of the country's recent prosperity, in a march to the heart of the protest at Pearl Square.
"Egypt, Tunisia, are we any different?" marchers chanted, calling for the Sunni rulers they accuse of discriminating against the island's Shiite majority to fall as the presidents of two other Arab countries have in recent weeks.
Helicopters hovered overhead but security forces offered no resistance after opening fire on protesters last week, and the size of the event rivaled any of the major demonstrations so far in the eight-day uprising.
The decree issued earlier Tuesday by Bahrain's king Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa covers several Shiite activists accused of plotting against the state. It underlined how much the absolute rulers of Bahrain want to kick start reform talks with opposition leaders, and the huge march in a nation of 525,000 citizens showed how much they need to.
The exact number of prisoners to be freed remains unclear, government spokeswoman Maysoon Sabkar said. But the inmates will include some of the 25 Shiite activists on trial for allegedly plotting against the monarchy, a leading member of Bahrain's Shiite opposition, Abdul Jalili Khalil, told The Associated Press.
He called the prisoner release "a good step" and a "positive gesture."
Two of those in the case are being tried in absentia, including prominent opposition leader Hassan Meshaima, who has been in self-exile in London since last year. Meshaima's return to Bahrain was imminent, his supporters said.
The activist's presence could bolster opposition forces seeking a harder line against the Bahrain dynasty, including some who have called for the complete ouster of the king and the family that has ruled for more than 200 years.
Meshaima's group, known as Haq, is considered more radical than the main Shiite political bloc that has taken a central role in the revolt and is seeking the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.
A small group of Bahraini army officers joined the ranks of protesters to demand reforms and the resignation of the current government. They condemned the soldiers who shot at protesters on Friday.
"What we did to the people was not heroic," said Yeussif Najri, an army officer. "We ask the people to forgive us, we ask the people for forgiveness."
The government said Tuesday that the overall death toll was seven from last week's clashes. Previous reports from opposition groups and hospital officials in the past week set the death toll at eight, but the government tally now appears accurate.
The government also said 25 people were hospitalized, but it's unclear what degree of injury authorities used to arrive at that figure. Opposition groups place the figure at more than 200. Associated Press journalists at the main state hospital witnessed many dozens of people being treated.
The attacks on protesters have brought stinging denunciations from Bahrain's Western allies, including the United States. The U.S. maintains very close ties with Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Bahrain authorities withdrew the military Saturday and allowed protesters to reclaim Pearl Square, the gathering point for the uprising and now a tent city of protesters.
Bahrain's Shiite majority has complained of discrimination and political persecution in the kingdom. They have staged protests in the past, but the current unrest is the most serious against the Sunni rulers.
On Monday, Bahrain's crown prince called off Formula One's season-opening race scheduled for March 13, handing another victory to protesters. Shiite leaders said it would have been disrespectful the hold the race to which Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa owns the rights
Sabkar told reporters the "immediate priority is to keep the peace and maintain calm." She said the government, led by the same prime minister — the king's uncle — for 40 years, was "deeply saddened by the tragic events of the past few days and its condolences go out to those families who have lost loved ones."