Bahrain’s foreign minister says situation is dangerous amid accusations to Iran of fueling instability

Protests spread in Syria as dozens reportedly killed or wounded

Israeli bus bombed in Jerusalem, Negev hit by Grad rockets

Yemen’s Saleh weakened by further defections

The situation in Bahrain is at a “very dangerous stage,” Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, told Turkish television channel NTV Wednesday.

“What is happening in Bahrain is now at a very dangerous stage. There is stability but we are absolutely afraid of the division between religious communities,” Khalifa said in the interview with over-voice translation.

Khalifa said Turkey and Bahrain should have a common policy on the division between religious communities in the Islamic world.

The foreign minister visited predominantly Muslim Turkey to discuss the unrest in his country. “In the whole region we should have a strategic agreement on how we would proceed in this transformation process,” he said, referring to the uprisings in the Arab world.

At least 20 people have been killed in Bahrain since the start of protests last month by the mainly Shiite majority calling for political reform. Human-rights groups and doctors have also complained that access to medical care has been hampered since security forces raided Bahrain’s busiest medical complex last Wednesday.

In the first official comment on casualties, the government said Wednesday that 30 people had been wounded in the crackdown last week, including 22 who are facing investigation over their role and five who are in a critical condition.

A government spokeswoman said 12 patients who were in a stable condition had been moved to the military hospital and would face criminal investigation. Another 10 patients who face investigation remain at Salmaniya hospital as their condition did not allow them to be moved.

“Admissions to Salmaniya Medical Complex have continued throughout the recent period and at no point have supplies been in jeopardy,” Maysoun Sakbar said.

“For a maximum period of approximately one hour, access to the hospital was limited, but even then emergency cases were still admitted,” Sakbar told reporters.

She said the hospital was raided because it had been “overrun by political and sectarian activity.”

Manama last week brought in forces from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to help quell the protests.

The move angered Iran and street protests against the intervention have also been held in Iraq and Lebanon, which are among the few Arab states where Shiites outnumber Sunnis.

Highlighting growing tensions in the region, Bahrain’s state-run Gulf Air said Wednesday in a statement on its website that all flights to Iran and Iraq had been suspended until March 31, without giving a reason. Bahrain also suspended Tuesday flights to and from Lebanon.

Bahrain had said this week that Iranian complaints to the United Nations over its crackdown on mainly Shiite Muslim protesters did not serve the security and stability of the Gulf region.

Bahrain called in forces from fellow Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states this week to help it end weeks of protests by the Shiite majority, a move which has drawn rare U.S. criticism and raised tensions with Shiite Muslim power Iran.

Iran complained to the United Nations about the crackdown earlier on Thursday and asked regional countries to urge Saudi Arabia to withdraw troops from the Sunni-ruled island.

"Iran's move does not serve security and stability in the Gulf region nor does it help in building friendly relations between neighboring countries," Hamad al-Amer, undersecretary for regional and Gulf Cooperation Council affairs, said.

Over 60 percent of Bahrainis are Shiites. Most say they want the same treatment as Sunnis and a constitutional monarchy, but calls by hardliners for the overthrow of the monarchy have alarmed Sunnis, who fear the unrest serves Iran.

Wednesday's crackdown has drawn sympathy protests from Shiites across the Gulf Arab region, including the minority in the east of the world's top oil-exporter Saudi Arabia.

"Bahrain is committed to the principles of good neighborly relations and does not interfere in the affairs of other states," he said. "Therefore, it calls on the U.N... and the Arab League to reject the Iranian calls as they breach international laws and conventions and contravene diplomatic norms."

Meanwhile, unrest spread in southern Syria on Monday with hundreds of people demonstrating against the government in three towns near the main city of Deraa, but authorities did not use force to quell the latest protests.

Security forces killed four civilians in demonstrations that erupted last week in Deraa, in the most serious challenge to President Bashar al-Assad's rule since the 45-year-old succeeded his father 11 years ago.

An 11-year-old child died overnight from inhaling tear gas fired by security forces, activists said.

"This is peaceful, peaceful. God, Syria, freedom," chanted the protesters in Jassem, an agricultural town 30 km (20 miles) west of Deraa.

Demonstrations also erupted in the towns of Nawa and Inkhel during which marchers held placards with the word "freedom."

Leading opposition figure Haitham al-Maleh said on Monday a desire for democratic reform was near-universal in Syria.

"The revolution is at the door and the regime is still flirting with change," said Maleh, an 80-year-old lawyer and former judge who has spent his life peacefully resisting the ruling Baath Party's monopoly on power, much of it from prison.

Independent figures have long urged Assad to curb security apparatus, initiate rule of law, release thousands of political prisoners, allow freedom of expression and reveal the fate of tens of thousands who disappeared during repression in the 1980s.

The ruling Baath Party has banned opposition and enforced emergency laws since 1963.

The protests have demanded freedom and an end to corruption and repression, but not the overthrow of Assad.

The authorities appeared to adopt less heavy-handed tactics, choosing not to intervene against protesters, although at least five people were arrested on Monday.

France, which has been a strong proponent of rehabilitating Syria's ruling elite in the West, urged Damascus "to respond to the Syrian people's aspirations with reforms."

The United States condemned the violence.

"We call on the Syrian government to allow demonstrations to take place peacefully. Those responsible for the violence over the weekend must be held accountable," said Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the White House National Security Council.

In Deraa, hundreds of black-uniformed security forces wielding AK-47 assault rifles lined the streets but did not confront thousands of mourners who marched at the funeral of 23-year-old Raed al-Kerad, a protester killed in Deraa.

"God, Syria, freedom. The people want the overthrow of corruption," they chanted. The slogan is a play on the words "the people want the overthrow of the regime," the rallying cry of revolutions that overthrew the veteran rulers of Tunisia and Egypt.

Security forces opened fire last Friday on civilians taking part in a peaceful protest in Deraa to demand the release of 15 children detained for writing protest graffiti.

Authorities released the children on Monday in a sign they were hoping to defuse tension in the border town, which witnessed more protests after Friday's crackdown.

Protesters have also demanded the release of political prisoners, the dismantling of secret police headquarters in Deraa, the dismissal of the governor, a public trial for those responsible for the killings and the scrapping of regulations requiring secret police permission to sell and buy property.

Deraa's secret police is headed by a cousin of Assad, who has emerged in the last four years from isolation by the West over Syria's role in Lebanon and Iraq and backing for mostly Palestinian militant groups.

Assad has strengthened Syria's ties with Shiite Iran as he sought to improve relations with the United States and strike a peace deal with Israel to regain the occupied Golan Heights, lost in the 1967 Middle East war.

But he left the authoritarian system he inherited intact.

His father sent troops to the city of Hama in 1982 to crush the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing thousands in the conservative religious city.

Meanwhile, Israel has warned of another military campaign against Palestinian militants, as rockets continue to be fired from Gaza a day after a bus was bombed in Jerusalem, killing one person.

Since last weekend, dozens of rockets have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel - two of them hitting Ashdod - a city of 200,000 people.

The rockets came after Israel launched a series of air strikes on Gaza.

Israeli aircraft have attacked smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, a Hamas training camp, a rocket crew and a power transformer, causing blackouts in the enclave.

There are conflicting reports of casualties from the strikes, with some saying at least eight Palestinians have been killed while others say no-one was hurt.

The latest strikes follow a bomb attack on a bus in Jerusalem on Wednesday, which killed one woman and wounded more than 30 people.

It was the first such bombing in the city since 2004.

The Israeli government says it will not allow a resurgence of terror attacks and has no choice but to respond.

Without giving much detail, defense minister Ehud Barak says Israel will choose both the timing and nature of how it responds.

Meanwhile, schools remain closed in Ashdod and in Beersheba, a city in the Negev desert struck several times by rockets from Gaza in the past week.

In Sanaa, a top military commander and at least 18 other senior officers defected to the opposition movement demanding the ouster of Yemen's embattled president, depriving the U.S.-allied ruler of most of his power base.

The looming collapse of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's regime throws into doubt the American campaign against a major al-Qaeda wing that plotted attacks in the United States.

Monday's defections led to rival tanks being deployed in the streets of Yemen's capital, Sanaa, creating a potentially explosive situation and prompting Saleh's defense minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, to announce the military remained loyal to the longtime leader.

The armed forces will counter any plots against the government, Ahmed declared on state television, following a meeting of the National Defense Council, which is led by Saleh and includes Ahmed, the prime minister and the intelligence chief.

The defection of Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a longtime Saleh confidante and commander of the army's powerful 1st Armored Division, was seen by many as a turning point. It followed a major escalation in the regime's crackdown on demonstrators, when more than 40 people were killed in bloody clashes Friday.

Speaking in Paris, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe called Saleh's resignation "unavoidable" and pledged "support to all those that fight for democracy."

Tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers directed by al-Ahmar fanned out around the Sanaa square that has become the epicenter of the opposition movement, moving in for the first time to protect demonstrators.

Al-Ahmar also sent tanks to the state television building, the Central Bank and the Defense Ministry. Just miles away, at least a dozen tanks and armored personnel carriers belonging to the Republican Guards, an elite force led by Saleh's son and one-time heir apparent, Ahmed, were deployed outside the presidential palace.

The deployment of al-Ahmar's troops in Sanaa was greeted by wild jubilation from protesters, many of whom posed with soldiers for photographs, greeted them with military style salutes or offered them roses.

Calling Al-Ahmar's defection "a turning point," Edmund J. Hull, U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 2001 to 2004, said it showed "the military overall ... no longer ties its fate to that of the president."

"I'd say he's going sooner rather than later," Hull said. In a sign of the Obama administration's growing alarm over the regime's crackdown on demonstrators, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called on the Yemeni leader to refrain from violence.

"We abhor the violence. We want a cessation of all violence against demonstrators," Toner said, calling on Saleh to "take the necessary steps to promote a meaningful dialogue that addresses the concerns of his people."

The 65-year-old president and his government have faced down many serious challenges in the past, often forging fragile alliances with restive tribes to extend power beyond the capital.

Most recently, he has battled a seven-year armed rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and an al-Qaeda offshoot that is of great concern to the U.S.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, formed in 2009, has moved beyond regional aims and attacked the West, including sending a suicide bomber who tried to down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day with a bomb sewn into his underwear. The device failed to detonate properly.

Yemen is also home to U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have offered inspiration to those attacking the U.S., including Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people and wounding dozens in a 2009 shootout at Fort Hood, Texas.

Saleh has been a key, though not entirely reliable, U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, frustrating his Washington backers with the delicate balancing act he has undertaken to maintain the goodwill of powerful tribes providing refuge to operatives from the terror network.

He has also earned a reputation for milking the "al-Qaeda card," demanding millions of dollars in military aid that he has used to bolster the capabilities of units loyal to him rather than take on al-Qaeda.

A Saleh successor would not be much different since Yemen's complex tribal system would stay intact after he is gone.

Al-Ahmar and two other senior army officers who defected Monday belong to Saleh's Hashid tribe and a tribal leader said it was rallying behind al-Ahmar as a possible replacement for Saleh, eager to keep the president's job for one of its own. The leader spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

A key Hashid leader, Sadeq al-Ahmar, said he and his supporters were also joining the protest movement. Speaking to Al-Jazeera television from Sanaa, he said the death of scores of protesters on Friday made him decide to back the opposition after weeks of trying to mediate between Saleh and the protesters.

"The demands of the protesters are the demands of the Yemeni people," he said. "I can no longer fool myself, it is not the custom of men or tribes to do so."

Monday's defections included at least 15 other top military figures. Among them were Sanaa's military commander, a former defense minister who served as a presidential adviser and a military police brigadier who is a member of the president's personal security detail.

Several top diplomats also said they were joining the opposition, including Yemen's ambassadors to Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Japan and the Arab League. Lawmakers, editors of state-owned newspapers, parliament's deputy speaker and the governor of the southern province of Aden also quit their jobs to join the opposition and urge Saleh to step down.

Early Tuesday, the Al-Jazeera satellite channel said gunmen attacked the station's offices in Sanaa and took equipment. Meanwhile, in a sign of the deepening divisions in the armed forces, gunfire broke out late Monday between the central security force protecting the presidential compound in the port city of Mukalla and the Yemeni army outside, security officials said. The compound, where Saleh stays when he is in town, is about a half-mile (kilometer) from where hundreds of protesters have been camping out to call for is ouster.

Maj. Gen. al-Ahmar has been close to Saleh for most of the Yemeni president's 32 years in power. He has close associations with Islamist groups in Yemen that are likely to raise suspicions in the West about his willingness to effectively fight al-Qaeda operatives active in the country.

He is a veteran of the 1994 civil war that saw Saleh's army suppress an attempt by southern Yemen to secede. Al-Ahmar also fought in recent years against Shiite rebels in northern Yemen.

His support for the opposition was welcomed by protesters, but the warm reception may not guarantee him a political career in a post-Saleh Yemen given his close links to the president.

"He comes from the very heart of Saleh's ruling dynasty," Yemeni analyst Mansour Haiel said of al-Ahmar, who has sometimes been seen as a rival to the president and his son, Ahmed.

"He could easily become the head of the next ruling dynasty." In the southern port city of Aden, Muslim militants set fire to a jazz club and a bar, objecting to their serving alcohol, a security official said. The men were part of an Islamist group taking advantage of the city's security void, as police were busy dealing with demonstrations, the official said.