Bahrain suspends Lebanon flights as sectarian tension rises

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 23, 2011 3:45 AM

MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain has suspended its flights to and from Lebanon a day after it warned its nationals not to travel there following declarations of support by Iranian-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah for protests by Bahrain's Shi'ite.

The decision 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's state-run Gulf Air also said in a statement on its website that all flights to Iran and Iraq had been suspended until March 31, without giving a reason.

Iran, which supports Shi'ite groups in Lebanon and Iraq, has strongly criticized the intervention in Bahrain by its neighboring Sunni-led Arab states.

Street protests against the intervention have also been held in Iraq and Lebanon, which along with Bahrain, are of the few Arab states where Shi'ites outnumber Sunnis.

"This decision was taken after the irresponsible comments and stances from Lebanon against Bahrain, its people and leaders," state-owned Bahrain news agency cited a statement from the Civil Aviation Affairs department as saying.

Flights by Gulf Air and Bahrain Air to and from Lebanon have been suspended indefinitely, it added.

On Tuesday, Bahrain's Foreign Ministry warned Bahrainis not to travel to Lebanon for their own safety and said the ban was due to threats and interference.

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

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah criticized Arab states for backing Bahrain's rulers, who called in troops from Sunni-led Saudi Arabia to help them quell protests by mainly Shi'ite protesters.

Bahrain has withdrawn its top diplomats from Iran in a protest over the Islamic Republic's criticism of last week's crackdown on mainly Shi'ite protesters in the island kingdom.

Shi'ite clerics and political leaders in Iraq have denounced the deployment of troops from Sunni-led Gulf states in Bahrain.

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.

Bahrain also said on Wednesday it had reduced curfew times by two hours in a bid to bring life back to normality in the kingdom that has been gripped by its worst unrest in years.

Last week, Bahrain imposed a curfew on large swathes of the capital Manama from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., later reducing those hours in some areas. The curfew now runs from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. from Seef Mall, through the Pearl roundabout and the financial district to the diplomatic area.

(Reporting by Rania El Gamal)