Bahrain bans Lebanon travel, sectarian tension rises

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 22, 2011 2:07 PM
Bahrain bans Lebanon travel, sectarian tension rises

By Lin Noueihed

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain warned its nationals on Tuesday not to travel to Lebanon for their own safety, after Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah came out in support of weeks of protests by mainly Shi'ite demonstrators.

The warning highlights growing tensions in the world's largest oil-exporting region between Sunni-ruled Arab countries and non-Arab Shi'ite power Iran, just across Gulf waters.

Bahrain has already withdrawn its top diplomats from Iran in a protest over the Islamic Republic's criticism of last week's crackdown on mainly Shi'ite protesters in the island kingdom.

The crackdown has also drawn sympathy protests in countries with Shi'ite populations, including Lebanon, where Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah criticized Arab states for backing Bahrain's rulers while supporting the rebels in Libya.

"Due to the threats and interference that Bahrain has faced from terrorist elements, it warns and advises its nationals not to travel to Lebanon because of the dangers they may face that may affect their safety, and it advises nationals in Lebanon to leave immediately," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The ferocity of the crackdown, which banned protests, imposed martial law and called in forces from Bahrain's fellow Sunni-ruled neighbors, has stunned its majority Shi'ites.

More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shi'ites, and most are campaigning for a constitutional monarchy; but calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest serves Iran, separated from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by only a short stretch of Gulf waters.

Iran, which supports Shi'ite groups in Iraq and Lebanon, has complained to the United Nations and asked neighbors to join it in urging Saudi Arabia to withdraw forces from Bahrain.

Bahrain also complained to the Arabsat broadcaster Sunday over "abuse and incitement" on Iran's Arabic-language Al Alam television, Hezbollah's Al-Manar and Shi'ite channel Ahlulbayt, which are all carried by Arabsat.

Bahrain's political crisis has been the subject of a media war between pro-Iranian channels and Bahraini state television. Both have accused the other of incitement.

Bahrain also condemned a protest outside the Saudi consulate in Tehran, after reports Saturday that some 700 demonstrators broke windows and raised a Bahraini flag over the gate.

One Lebanese resident of Bahrain said Tuesday he had initially been denied entry to the country when he tried to return from a brief business trip.

At least 1,500 Lebanese live in Bahrain and a group of expatriates issued a statement Sunday, distancing the community from Nasrallah's comments.

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)