MANAMA (Reuters) - Crowds of masked protesters hurled petrol bombs at police who fired tear gas back in Bahrain on Saturday, turning the streets into a battle zone on the eve of a Formula One Grand Prix that demonstrators say glorifies a repressive government.
Protesters were driven by outrage over the death of one of their number, whose body was found sprawled on a village rooftop after overnight clashes with police.
Around 7,000 marchers held banners calling for democratic reforms. Some banners depicted Formula One race car drivers as riot police beating up protesters.
Bahrain's government has spent $40 million to host the global luxury sporting event, hoping to demonstrate that normal life has returned to the Gulf island kingdom after it cracked down harshly on Arab Spring demonstrations last year.
But vivid televised images of streets ablaze threaten to embarrass Formula One and the global brands that lavish it with sponsorship.
"The government are using the Formula One race to serve their PR campaign," said rights activist Nabeel Rajab. "It's not turning out the way they wanted."
Reuters journalists in Diraz near the capital Manama said police tried to move protesters off a roundabout by firing tear gas. Demonstrators hurled Molotov cocktails back.
Activists described clashes in several districts. Mohammed al-Maskati of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights said police used tear gas, rubber bullets and sound bombs on a crowd of several hundred protesters trying to reach a main road in al-Bilad al-Qadeem, a Shi'ite neighbourhood of Manama.
The neighbourhood was home to Salah Abbas Habib, 37, whose body was found splayed on a corrugated iron rooftop. Opposition party Wefaq said he was among a group of protesters who had been beaten by police after fierce clashes on Friday night.
Habib's death infuriates members of Bahrain's Shi'ite Muslim majority, who complain they have long been marginalised by the Sunni ruling family and have been treated brutally since the crackdown on protests last year.
A funeral march for Habib will probably take place on Sunday, once his body has been released to his family, setting the stage for riots during the big race itself.
Activists say his death takes the total dead since the uprising began on February 14, 2011 to 81, including police killed last year, a figure the government disputes.
"We are calling for the regime to fall, we can't live with this regime, they abused our youth, our honour, they destroyed our mosques," said marcher Ahmed Madani.
"Our initial demands were to elect a new government but after the disgusting abuse we received, all the people are asking for is for the regime to fall."
The uprising forced the cancellation of last year's Grand Prix, but this year the authorities were determined to stage it. Organisers and sponsors have ignored calls from human rights groups for a boycott. Thomson Reuters, parent company of Reuters, sponsors the Williams Formula One team.
NO LASTING DAMAGE
The head of Formula One's governing body said the sport would suffer no long-lasting damage from the Bahrain event, despite the images of streets ablaze.
"I am not sure that all that has been reported corresponds to the reality of what is happening in this country," International Automobile Federation president Jean Todt told reporters at the Bahrain circuit.
While sports journalists have been invited to cover the race, non-sports reporters from Reuters and some other news organisations have been denied visas.
Overnight battles late on Friday saw police fire teargas at masked youths throwing petrol bombs who tried to reach a traffic roundabout that was the main rallying point during last year's uprising. Hundreds of protesters took refuge from teargas in a shopping mall.
The protests have so far been kept away from the Bahrain International Circuit, where qualifying races were held on Saturday in advance of Sunday's main race.
Armoured vehicles and security forces in riot gear guarded the highway during Friday's clashes.
The protesters, mostly from the majority Shi'ite Muslim community, blame the Sunni ruling elite for shutting them out of opportunities, jobs and housing. They have made it clear they will use the international attention the motor race has focused on Bahrain to air their grievances.
Bahrain's Interior Ministry issued a statement saying it was launching an investigation into Habib's killing. "The perpetrators of this crime, whoever they may be, will be brought to justice," it said.
According to Maskati, three witnesses who took part with Habib in Friday night's clash said he had been hit by birdshot while running away from police.
"They said they don't know if he died from the birdshot or from being beaten up by security forces," Maskati said, adding police appeared to know where his body was when they went to the village of Shakhura early on Saturday morning.
Bahrain, a financial hub and modest oil producer, is an important U.S. military ally and host to the Fifth Fleet, the U.S. Navy's main outpost in the region.
It is the only one of the Gulf's Arab monarchies with a Shi'ite majority, and the only one that was seriously threatened by last year's Arab Spring, which swept away the long-serving rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
During last year's crackdown, Bahrain brought in troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Security forces cleared the streets and bulldozed the landmark Pearl Roundabout. Thirty-five people, including security personnel, were killed.
Since then, with protests and clashes continuing, Bahrain has invited in an independent commission to prescribe reforms and has enacted some, but human rights groups say there is still more work to be done. They say the kingdom's rulers are using the motor race to improve their international image.
"We are committed to our programme of reforms, but this week's unbalanced coverage does little to help the progress we are already making," a Bahrain Information Affairs Authority official said in a statement.
Hackers brought down the F1 website intermittently on Friday and defaced another site, f1-racers.net, to support what they described as the Bahraini people's struggle against oppression.
At stake is a race that has drawn more than 100,000 visitors and generated more than $500 million in spending. It has been a symbol of pride for the ruling royal family since Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa brought the first Formula One Grand Prix to the region in 2004.
Some members of the 12 teams have witnessed clashes. Two members of the Force India team went home to Britain. Force India returned to the track after skipping a Friday practice.
Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone described general security fears as "nonsense". Team principals say they are confident in security measures, which they describe as similar to arrangements at other Formula One races across the globe.
Opposition leaders say more than 100 protest organisers have been arrested in night raids in the past week and dozens have been wounded in clashes in which police have fired birdshot directly and live rounds into the air.
Also of concern is the health of hunger striker Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of 14 men jailed for leading last year's uprising. Khawaja's family said he stopped drinking water on Friday, after being on hunger strike for more than 70 days.
His death would be a major blow to the government, which is trying to make the case that reforms are under way.
His release, however, would also be a loss of face and could energise the opposition. Denmark, where Khawaja also holds citizenship, has offered to take him.
"His situation is very dangerous," said activist Rajab. "If he dies that will make people very angry."
(Additional reporting by Warda Al-Jawahiry and Andrew Hammond; Writing by Reed Stevenson and Andrew Hammond in Dubai)
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