Thousands of Bahrainis demonstrated on Friday against police repression, witnesses said, after the Gulf kingdom insisted it respects the right to protest and that its security forces intervene only when demonstrations turn violent.
The march called by the main Shiite opposition group Al-Wefaq took place west of the capital Manama under the slogan "Democracy unites us," they said.
Some demonstrators called for the departure of Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the uncle of King Hamad and Bahrain's premier since independence from Britain in 1971.
Late on Thursday, in response to U.S. State Department concerns, the foreign ministry said that Bahrain "authorizes the peaceful expression of opinion within the constitution and the law."
"The security forces exercise maximum restraint even though they are regularly the target of acts of violence," it said in a statement. "But these forces reserve the right to take necessary measures in the face of any escalation in violence."
The State Department on Wednesday urged Bahrain to exercise restraint and allow peaceful protests, condemning a new outbreak of unrest in the U.S.-allied Sunni Muslim-led kingdom that saw deadly clashes between protesters and police.
"We are deeply concerned about the increase in violence in Bahrain," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
"We condemn the use of violence in all its forms -- whether against peaceful demonstrators or police and government institutions -- and urge all parties to reject such actions," Nuland said in a statement.
"We call on the government of Bahrain to permit peaceful protest and to exercise maximum restraint in maintaining order, just as we call on all those demonstrating to do so peacefully," she said.
The Gulf state's Shiite majority holds regular protests against its alleged marginalization and disenfranchisement by the Sunni regime. A crackdown on protests last year left 35 dead, according to an independent probe.
The kingdom witnessed a new wave of unrest leading up to the controversially staged Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix last weekend, a year after the event was canceled because of the earlier crackdown.
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