DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain has arrested several people accused of stealing and burning cars amid heightened security in the island kingdom before Sunday's Formula One race, which the opposition sees as a chance to publicize a pro-democracy campaign.
Watched by millions around the world, the Grand Prix is the biggest sporting event hosted by the U.S.-allied country and the government is hoping for a healthy turnout at this year's race despite continuing violent unrest.
The Gulf Arab state, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is based, has been hit by unrest since pro-democracy protests broke out in early 2011, putting it in the frontline of the region-wide tussle between Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain's state news agency said late on Wednesday that authorities had arrested a man who later confessed to an incident in which a car burned and exploded in the country's financial district on April 14.
Four other people accused of stealing and burning a car near a roundabout were also arrested and another person was detained over an accusation he blocked a main road and caused damage to a Bahraini's car.
The race at the Sakhir desert circuit was canceled in 2011 when protests were crushed and at least 35 people were killed. Activists put the death toll far higher.
Last year's race went ahead against a backdrop of burning tires and riot police firing teargas at protesters throwing petrol bombs in Shi'ite Muslim villages.
Bahrain's main opposition bloc has called for peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations to be stepped up before the race, saying the global spotlight shone on the kingdom by the Grand Prix would help showcase its message of reform.
Amnesty International said human rights activists claimed dozens of protesters had been arrested ahead of the race.
"The authorities are trying to use the Grand Prix as a platform to show progress, with claims that the human rights situation has improved, whilst stepping up repression in order to ensure nothing disturbs their public image," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Program deputy director in a statement on Wednesday.
"We are seeing nothing but crackdowns and token gestures to clean up the country's image," Sahraoui added.
Human Rights Watch said on April 10 that police had arrested 20 opposition activists in towns near the circuit with the apparent intention of preventing a repeat of the 2012 protests.
The government denied those arrests had taken place. It also denies accusations by rights groups that it uses excessive force in cracking down on protests and says it arrests suspects in accordance with the rule of law.
(Writing by Yara Bayoumy, Editing by William Maclean and Mike Collett-White)