By Frederik Richter
MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain suspended the Gulf Arab state's main opposition newspaper on Sunday, after accusing it of falsifying news about sectarian unrest and a government crackdown on protests.
Bahrain has seen the worst unrest since the 1990s after mostly Shi'ite protesters took to the streets in February, inspired by uprisings that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, to demand a bigger say in the Sunni-ruled country.
The official Bahrain News Agency (BNA) and government newspapers said Al-Wasat was suspended.
"The paper has adhered to lies, falsification and plagiarism as its guiding principles for the sake of deceiving its readers through publishing fabricated stories and photos," BNA said.
"It directly and deliberately poses a real threat to the kingdom's security and stability," it said.
Official statistics say at least 13 protesters, seven foreign residents and four police have died in clashes that prompted Bahrain to declare martial law and invite troops from its Sunni Gulf neighbors, who are wary of the regional influence of Shi'ite power Iran.
The leader of those troops said in remarks published on Sunday they were there to prevent "outside aggression."
Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a member of the largest Shi'ite opposition group, Wefaq, has said up to 329 people have been arrested in the crackdown on protesters. He said the number could be more than 400, including internet activists, since many people were still unaccounted for.
Mansoor al-Jamri, Al-Wasat's editor-in-chief, said it was not clear if its print license would be revoked or not.
Al-Wasat's printing press was damaged during the unrest and on March 17 a group of plainclothes men with weapons were in the streets around its offices, holding up production.
"We've been working under extreme conditions, our staff has been attacked physically and we've been threatened," Jamri said. "I personally have been attacked by Bahrain TV over the past three weeks. It looks like an orchestrated campaign to silence the last independent voice (in Bahrain)," he added.
Jamri resigned later and told Reuters: "I resigned to safeguard the newspaper. This was a campaign against me personally."
Jamri, son of Abdul-Amir al-Jamri who led Bahrain's Shi'ite opposition in the 1990s, had returned from exile a decade ago after the country's king promised political reforms.
There are no private broadcasters in Bahrain and the Shi'ite opposition has accused Bahrain TV of fomenting sectarian division by what it says was one-sided coverage.
Analysts say that most of Bahrain's state-owned media is under the control of hardliners in the royal family.
The leader of the troops sent to Bahrain said they were there to protect the island from foreign aggression.
"Our mission is to protect the kingdom of Bahrain from any outside aggression in addition to securing and protecting the lively institutions and strategic centers and interests, as well as military bases," Major General Mutlaq bin Salem told Okaz newspaper in Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf Cooperation Council, which groups the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, coordinates military and economic policy in the world's top oil-exporting region. The troops sent by Saudi Arabia and the UAE are part of a Gulf "Peninsula Shield" force.
"The current agreements between GCC countries mean to protect it and any other (GCC) countries when they are pre-occupied with internal affairs," the general said.
Asked how long the troops would stay in Bahrain, he said: "Our presence in Bahrain is dependent on how long we are needed there."
Bahrain's army said on Sunday it had changed the hours of a curfew in a part of central Manama to between midnight and 5 a.m., from between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. previously.
(Reporting by Frederik Richter and Asma Alsharif; Editing by Nick Macfie)