Bahrain’s prime minister says loyalty to nation is the key standard

Al-Qaeda blamed for Yemen’s bullet factory blast that left hundreds killed, wounded

King of Jordan says considering no alternative for dialogue on comprehensive reform

Egypt announces constitutional declaration

Syria’s Assad addresses nation on recent incidents

Bahraini Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa announced a series of mega building projects may be forthcoming.

The Prime Minister said he has commissioned feasibility studies for a number of projects to bolster the nation's infrastructure and return the country to economic prosperity.

"The huge development schemes are aimed at re-energizing the national economy and ensuring it more edge," he said. He instructed concerned authorities to suggest a list of such projects along with their estimated costs and deadlines.

"The priority should be put first and foremost on housing and infrastructure," the Prime Minister said during a work meeting.

This initiative is part of a series of proposals by the government to return Bahrain to normalcy. Earlier this month the Crown Prince called on all opposition groups to enter a National Dialogue and explore ways to foster reform in Bahrain.

In other developments, the Central Bank of Bahrain (CBB) has been instructed to provide more help to businesses in overcoming negative repercussions resulting from the unrest.

The Prime Minister directed CBB officials to co-ordinate extra measures with banks and financial institutions to help the private sector regain its pivotal role as a driving force of the national economy.

"The government is working hard for the economy to emerge stronger and surmount any negative repercussions," he said.

The Bahraini prime minister said the recent protests in his country prompted the government to reconsider many things “like having loyalty to the nation as a top standard,” adding “the priority to benefit from the nation’s wealth should go for those who are loyal to it.”

Meanwhile, Bahrain has stepped up arrests of cyber activists and Shiites, with more than 300 detained and dozens missing since it launched a crackdown on pro-democracy protests, the opposition said on Thursday.

Earlier this month, the Gulf Arab island's Sunni rulers imposed martial law and called in troops from fellow Sunni-ruled neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, to quell the protest movement led mostly by the state's Shiite majority.

The severity of the crackdown, in which public gatherings are banned and security forces have been deployed at checkpoints, stunned Bahrain's Shiites and angered the region's non-Arab Shiite power Iran.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states fearful of rising Iranian influence see Bahrain as a red line among the popular uprisings that have swept the region since January.

Some members of the opposition saw the arrests as a move by the authorities to cement gains against them after the crackdown, in which forces razed Manama's Pearl Square where demonstrators had camped out and tore down its central statue.

"The government says it is taking steps to ensure stability and security, but what's happening is the exact opposite. We're in one of the most dangerous stages, where citizens have no security," said Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a member of the country's largest Shiite opposition group Wefaq.

"They're being arrested and kidnapped at checkpoints that are all over Bahrain. The checkpoints are a place of fear." Activists and politicians say a growing number of reform campaigners are going into hiding.

"The situation is critical ... Almost all the bloggers and activists who aren't in jail are now in hiding," said Nabeel Rajab, head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

"They raided 15 houses in my neighborhood last night but they only got two people, so I assume the rest are hiding."

Mattar said Wefaq had counted 302 arrests by Wednesday but believed the number would reach 400 soon.

Bahrain's government said this week it was still committed to dialogue but security must be restored first after weeks of unrest.

Proposals put forward by the crown prince included an elected government and reform of electoral districts, which the opposition says are gerrymandered to ensure a Sunni majority in parliament. Talks stalled over the terms of dialogue before the crackdown began on March 16.

Sunni supporters of the government say reforms launched by King Hamad bin Isa a decade ago have resulted a level of freedom and democracy unique in the Gulf region.

Activists and opposition politicians said the campaign of arrests took a chilling turn with the arrest of the prominent blogger Mahmood al-Yousif on Wednesday.

Yousif, who for years has promoted an anti-sectarianism under the slogan "No Shiite, No Sunni, Just Bahraini," is believed to have been arrested in the early hours.

His wife, Frances Irvine, said she arrived home from a trip to find her husband missing, as well as his computer, phone cassettes and tapes of family holidays.

"He phoned us at 10 a.m. to tell our son he was being held 'as a guest' and was okay. I don't know what that means, and I have had no other contact. We have no idea where he is."

Yousif was considered a liberal who criticized the Sunni rulers for the lack of reform but also chided Wefaq for not moving more quickly to talks with the government.

More than 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shiites and most want a constitutional monarchy. Demands by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed minority Sunnis.

Jasim Husain of Wefaq said talks with the government could still take place but the government needed to act quickly if it wanted to save Bahrain's role as a financial center.

"The more we delay, the more it helps our competitors. We cannot afford to wait."

A series of blasts at a bullet factory in south Yemen killed at least 110 people on Monday when residents broke in to steal ammunition a day after clashes between militants and the army in the town, doctors said.

Witnesses said the blasts, possibly triggered by a cigarette, caused a massive fire in the factory in the town of Jaar in Abyan province, where al Qaeda militants and mainly leftist southern separatists are active.

"This accident is a true catastrophe, the first of its kind in Abyan," said one doctor at the state-run hospital. "There are so many burned bodies. I can't even describe the situation."

Doctors put the death toll at 110, but said that even arriving at a figure was difficult because the charred remains were difficult to count. They said some victims, including women and children, would be buried in a mass grave.

Scores were wounded, many suffering from burns, doctors said, and many bodies remained inside the factory, which also contained stores of gunpowder.

Clashes broke out in Jaar on Sunday between militants and the army, feeding Western and Saudi fears that chaos in Yemen would benefit al Qaeda's Yemen-based arm while President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year-old rule is in crisis.

Saleh is facing pressure from tens of thousands of protesters demanding his removal. Talks on a transition have stalled, although sources close to the discussions said a deal was still within reach.

Militants who a provincial government official said were suspected to be from al Qaeda seized control of several buildings on Monday in the town of several hundred thousand residents, including the bullet factory.

The army tried to dislodge them, but later appeared to have deserted the town for the provincial capital of Zinjibar, where security was tightened after militants fired rockets at state buildings, witnesses said.

One soldier was killed on Sunday and aircraft flew over Jaar.

By early on Monday, Islamist gunmen appeared to be in control of Jaar and had left the bullet factory. But they did not prevent residents from streaming in to see the factory or steal from an ammunition depot on the site, witnesses said.

"The factory is surrounded by these terrorist elements who did not permit fire trucks to enter to extinguish the blaze in the factory, nor did they allow ambulances to transport the dead and wounded to hospitals," a provincial official said.

Doctors said they were later allowed in to retrieve the remains, and the governor of Abyan announced an investigation, state media said.

Washington, which has been involved in the transition talks in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia have seen Saleh as a strongman to keep al Qaeda from extending its foothold in a country which many political analysts say is close to collapse.

In Amman, Jordan's king has condemned his country's unrest and urged the opposition to join a national dialogue on reforms.

These were the first public remarks by King Abdullah II since last week’s violence, when one person was killed and 120 wounded in clashes between competing protesters, the worst flare-up in three months of weekly pro-democracy gatherings.

The king said he supports the freedom of expression but warned that he will not tolerate "vandalism and chaos."

Abdullah condemned violence and said he did not fear reforms.

He spoke Tuesday to a national dialogue committee drafting laws for greater public freedoms, part of an effort to ease tensions.

The opposition accuses the government of ordering police to use excessive force to disperse last Friday's protest calling for reforms.

In Cairo, Egypt's military authorities announced this week a constitutional declaration which comprises 63 articles for the transitional period.

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Major General Mamdouh Shahin said the declaration lays down the rules for presidential candidature, which were set forth in the constitutional amendments approved by a referendum held on March 19.

Amendments to nine constitution articles have been passed in a referendum on March 19 with the support rate of 77.2 percent.

He added that the presidential elections will be held under full judicial supervision, the president serves four years as a term and could be re-elected only once, and a vice president should be appointed within 60 days.

The articles in the declaration stipulate that no party can be formed on religious basis, although the state religion is Islam and the main source of legislation is from Islam principles.

The religious and expression freedom will be guaranteed, and the elected president will take over the power immediately from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces after presidential elections, the general said.

He confirmed that the authority of the legislative Shura Council will be reduced.

According to Al Arabiya TV, Egypt will hold presidential election in October or November after parliamentary election slated on September.

The military authorities suspended the Egyptian constitution and parliament on Feb. 13, two days after taking power from former President Hosni Mubarak who stepped down due to 18 days of protests against his 30-year rule.

In Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad delivered a speech in the parliament, his first since the unprecedented dissent erupted two weeks ago.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has called the unprecedented protests in his country a "test for the nation," according to state TV.

In his first address to the nation Wednesday since the unprecedented dissent erupted two weeks ago, Assad said Syria was going through a "test of unity."

As he entered Parliament for Wednesday's speech, legislators chanted "God, Syria and Bashar only!'' and "Our souls, our blood, we sacrifice for you Bashar."

"I belong to the Syrian people, and who ever belongs to the Syrian people will always keep his head high," he said in a televised address before members of parliament.

"I know that the Syrian people have been awaiting this speech since last week, but I was waiting to get the full picture... to avoid giving an emotional address that would put people at ease but have no real effect, at a time when our enemies are targeting Syria," Assad said.

He said "conspirators" have tried to reinforce sectarianism to incite hatred and "bring down Syria."

He went on to say that the objective of the conspirators, who make up a minority, was to "fragment and bring down Syria."

Assad further admitted that Syria was not isolated from the changes sweeping across the region.

"We believe these are positive changes in the region. Syria is not isolated from the rest of the region... but we are not copy of other countries," he said.

"We are all for reform. That is the duty of the state. But we are not for strife," said Assad.

Referring to the people of Daraa, where the most violent protests took place, Assad said that the "People of Daraa are not responsible for what happened and are not responsible for the chaos that ensued."

"The people of Daraa are the people of patriotism and the people of pan-Arab nationalism," Assad declared, adding that the government had given orders to security forces not to open fire in Daraa.

"We cannot say that everyone who went out (in the streets) is a conspirator. Let us be clear about that," he said.

But the confrontation escalated, Assad said, because of "chaos in the streets" fomented by the plotters seeking to bring down Syria.

"We are for supporting people's demands, but we cannot support chaos," the Syrian president said.

He added that "the plotters have chosen the wrong nation and we will be able to overcome the crisis."

Assad said Syria's government will not fall like a domino in a string of Arab states, saying that instead Syria had kicked the dominoes of the "conspirators" and that they had fallen instead.

The measures announced Thursday were not made suddenly," he said, adding that "the emergency law and political parties law have been under study for a year."

"There are more, unannounced reforms ... but giving a timeframe is a logistic matter," Assad added.

"When we announce it in such circumstances, it is difficult to meet that deadline," he said.

Assad declined to elaborate on major reforms in a speech Wednesday despite expectations he would lift a state of emergency, which has been in force since the ruling Baath Party took power in 1963.

His speech comes a day after his government resigned amid widespread protests calling for reforms.

A new cabinet is expected to be announced by the end of the week.