The Obama administration is resuming some arms shipments to Bahrain after most were suspended last year because of a government crackdown on political dissent.
The State Department said Friday the administration still has human rights concerns about the strategic Persian Gulf island nation and will work with the government to improve the situation. But it said it is releasing the equipment because it is in U.S. national interests and is necessary for the defense of Bahrain, which is host to the U.S. Navy's 5th fleet.
"Bahrain is an important security partner and ally in a region facing enormous challenges," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. Maintaining the ability to respond to such challenges is a critical part of the U.S. commitment to Gulf security, she said.
She said that the administration is "mindful" of "serious unresolved human rights issues" and that holds imposed on the transfer of some items, such as TOW anti-tank missiles and Humvees, would continue.
Among the equipment being released are harbor patrol boats for the Bahrain Coast Guard and upgrades to F-16 fighter engines, officials said. Officials could not give an estimate of cost of the items but the package suspended last year was worth $53 million.
Nuland stressed that items being released are not used for crowd control and that the U.S. remains concerned about excessive use of force and tear gas against opposition activists. Officials said tear gas, tear gas launchers and stun grenades are not included in the package.
Human rights activists denounced the move.
"This sale is completely out of step with the United States' stated commitment to reform in Bahrain," said Brian Dooley of Human Rights First. "Where is the progress that warrants the reward of arms? This new sale will only damage U.S. credibility among those working for democracy in Bahrain and across the Middle East."
Friday's announcement followed separate meetings in Washington this week between Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
But it also came as Bahraini riot police on Friday fired tear gas and stun grenades during clashes with anti-government protesters following a rally calling for the release of detained activists, according to witnesses. The violence was just the latest in a string of incidents the unrest in which at least 50 people have died since it began in February 2011.
In his meeting with the crown prince Friday, Biden expressed concern about the recent escalation of street violence, including attacks against security forces, according to a White House statement. The vice president stressed "the importance of ensuring fundamental rights for all Bahrainis and the need for greater progress by the government on accountability for past abuses, police reform and integration, and inclusive political dialogue," the statement read.
Nuland praised Bahrain's government for taking "some important steps" to follow through on recommendations made by a special commission created to look into the violence.
But she added that much more work must be done to ease increasing polarization between majority Shiites and the ruling Sunni monarchy. And she lamented that some protesters were resorting to violence.
"We urge all sides to work together to end the violence and refrain from incitement of any kind, including attacks on peaceful protesters or on the Bahraini police," Nuland said.