Hours after Bahrain officially ended 11 weeks of martial law on Wednesday, security forces attacked peaceful protesters in more than 20 villages with rubber bullets, stun grenades, shotguns and tear gas, according to human rights observers in Bahrain.
A day earlier, the king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, called for a national dialogue aimed at reconciliation, while also making it clear he would not tolerate any public protests. As the government withdrew troops from the capital of Manama early Wednesday, it promptly dispatched large numbers of police officers, who began massing at dawn in the areas where activists had called for protests, said Mohammed al-Maskati, the leader of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights.
"In some villages the protesters only gathered for a few minutes before the security forces attacked," said Mr. Maskati, who said the plan was for coordinated protests to begin at 5 p.m. in mostly Shiite villages around the tiny island kingdom.
Bahrain's Shiite majority, inspired by the example of the Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrators who brought down their authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak, started a protest movement in early February. They pressed for greater rights and freedoms from the Sunni monarchy, which they said had long discriminated against Shiites in housing, education and employment.
As the popular uprising gained momentum, bringing tens of thousands into the street, the monarchy began an aggressive crackdown, including attacks on medical personnel and the injured seeking treatment, arbitrary detentions, torture and the killing of more than 30 demonstrators, human rights researchers said. In mid-March, the king declared martial law and invited troops from the Gulf Cooperation Council, including 1,200 from Saudi Arabia and 800 from the United Arab Emirates, into the country to help stop the unrest.
It was not immediately clear Wednesday whether the ending of martial law meant that foreign troops would leave Bahrain.
Bahrain is an important strategic ally of the United States and is the base of the Navy's Fifth Fleet.
Though President Obama has also called on Bahrain to respect the rights of its citizens, the United States has largely looked away as Bahrain and its Persian Gulf allies have crushed the protest movement.
In a speech on Tuesday to local journalists, King Khalifa announced that a "comprehensive, serious dialogue" would begin next month and said that "no one shall be harmed due to his peaceful, civilized expression of opinion."
But Bahraini activists said that the kingdom's prisons were still full — more than 800 people have been arrested since the protest movement began — and that the country's military court was still active. Matar Ibrahim Matar, a former member of Parliament and leading member of Bahrain's largest Shiite opposition group, Al Wifaq, was arrested on May 2 and, aside from one brief phone call to his family, has been held incommunicado ever since. Nabeel Rajab, the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was summoned by the military court late Tuesday, shortly after the king's speech.
"It's early days in the end of the 'state of national safety,' as they call it, but the government has a lot to do to make up for the damage it has done," Dan Williams, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a phone interview. "It's not enough to just call it off. Are all the people who were detained going to be released?" As a result, the national mood, activists say, is bitter and angry, rather than receptive to calls for reconciliation.
"The king has been talking about reforms, but all we've seen is another crackdown," said Maryam al-Khawaja of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.
On Monday, Moody's Investors Service downgraded its ratings of three Bahraini banks, less than a week after it downgraded Bahrain's government bond rating. Bahrain's rulers were concerned by the decision.
"The government of Bahrain has been trying to project civility," Mr. Williams said. "They're trying to say that business-friendly Bahrain is back in business."