By Hamad Mohammed
MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahraini protesters attacked a police station with petrol bombs on Thursday and riot police responded with teargas and stun grenades after a funeral march for a man who was killed in clashes during the Gulf Arab state's Formula One race last week.
The clashes in the Manama neighborhood of al-Bilad al-Qadeem came after thousands of mourners visited the grave of Salah Abbas Habib, 36, who was found dead on Saturday after he disappeared during fighting with police.
Bahrain, where the Sunni Muslim Al Khalifa family rules over a majority Shi'ite Bahraini population, has been turmoil since a pro-democracy uprising erupted last year after successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.
Petrol bombs set the police station's wall ablaze and the clashes spilled onto a main highway, holding up traffic for up to an hour, Reuters witnesses said.
Habib's battered body was buried by his family in the village of Shakhura on Monday, with extensive birdshot wounds which friends said he sustained during clashes with police he took part in the previous evening.
The main opposition party Wefaq says Habib's body showed signs of torture, including multiple fractures and birdshot pellets that appeared to have been fired at close range. The interior ministry has said it would establish what happened to Habib.
Wefaq says his death takes to 81 the number of people killed since the protests began. That figure includes 35 who died during the initial uprising and crackdown with over two months of martial law, including five security personnel.
The government disputes the causes of death in many of the cases and says the protesters are hooligans who are trying to kill police. It says a homemade bomb wounded four policeman this week, while seven others were wounded earlier this month.
The turmoil has continued with regular mass marches and almost daily clashes in Shi'ite areas throughout the island.
The protests escalated ahead of last week's Formula One Grand Prix, drawing criticism of Bahrain from some governments, rights groups and media watchdogs who say police use excessive force and the government should find a political solution.
Interior Minister Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah Al Khalifa defended policing on Wednesday, saying they had a right to defend themselves.
Protesters and opposition parties want to end domination by the ruling family through giving parliament full powers to legislate and form governments. The government has offered little, accusing the opposition of being lackeys of Iran.
Analysts say Bahrain has found itself dragged into the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the bastion of Sunni Islam, and Shi'ite power Iran. While Riyadh has backed Bahrain's U.S.-allied Sunni rulers, Iranian media give prominent coverage to the opposition.
Concerns for the life of a jailed opposition leader on hunger strike have sharpened the tension in the country, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet and is also seen by Washington as a bulwark against Iranian expansionism.
Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, one of 14 men in prison for leading an uprising last year, has been fasting for 78 days. He is serving a life sentence for expressing support for Bahrain becoming a republic during last year's uprising.
His wife and his lawyer both say military hospital authorities have prevented contact with Khawaja this week, though the interior minister said on Twitter on Wednesday evening that he was in "good health".
Front Line Defenders, an Irish-based group defending rights activists, called on Bahrain in a statement to provide "proof of life" to confirm Khawaja is still alive.
"Front Line Defenders calls on the (interior) minister to allow family visits, restore daily phone calls and update his family on his medical condition. Since 1pm Monday no verification of his status has been possible," it said.
The next session in an appeal hearing for Khawaja and 13 others jailed for leading last year's protests is due on Monday.
Khawaja is respected by international rights groups as a rights defender but seen by some Bahrainis as a Shi'ite Islamist activist.
Criticism by Western allies such as the U.K. and the U.S. has been muted for fear of alienating a trusted friend as well as its Saudi neighbor, which fears unrest could spread amongst Shi'ites in the oil region of its Eastern Province.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond in Dubai; Editing by Jon Boyle)